Performed on the intimate Evjue stage at Madison’s Bartell Theatre, “A Place in the Woods” features a homecoming that combines important contemporary topics such as homosexuality, dementia, suicide and the sense of belonging, all in less than two hours.
The play, written by Erik Gernand, tells a simple story of a man returning to his roots — with a couple of added twists. The prodigal son is Shaun (Josh Paffel), a gay filmmaker living in Chicago. The play begins when he is called back to his hometown in the significantly less cosmopolitan Hunter, Indiana, as his mom appears to be slipping into a state of dementia.
Shaun brings along his teenage son and meets his brother, who he hasn’t seen since he left for college, at home. Inevitably, this situation sets things up perfectly for family secrets and dark memories to begin creeping out of the home.
The alley-style stage of the small theatre places the audience on either side of the cluttered house, which worked aesthetically but often made me question what exactly was on the other side of the unit. Scenic designer Doug Dion also had ten pieces of draped scrim line the entire stage, adding dimension to the standard kitchen set.
Gernand’s script has a sense of humor as it glides through an increasingly dark story involving the mother and her two sons. This humor attempts to make the story more relatable to us and succeeds in this aspect. There were times when I thought Shaun’s mother, Linda (Marcy Weiland), was quoting my own grandmother, and it was easy to speculate who his brother, Brady (Edric Johnson), had cast his ballot for in this past presidential election. Shaun’s son Alex (Lon Tremain-Woodcock) uses phrases such as “amazeballs,” demonstrating his age — his excitement over finding a mixtape “on tape” was thoroughly believable due to his vernacular.
Amy C. May and Kathleen Tissot’s costuming also assisted in differentiating each character’s unique situation. Shaun is constantly wearing polos, which highlight his uptight nature and unwillingness to linger and relax about the demons of his past, compared with the lax and loose, t-shirt-wearing Brady. I found Alex’s graphic tees and hoodies a joy to watch change throughout the night, as their sometimes comical, sometimes political nature made perfect outfitting sense for a teenager still finding his place in the world.
The ensemble, led by director Suzan Kurry, is determined to portray each character with integrity and defines each character’s objectives clearly. One particular highlight was Weiland’s portrayal of a dementia-stricken Linda. Her performance tenuously shifts from light-hearted banter to confused rage, occasionally peppered with notes of sorrow when she sees images of “the woods” float through her memory. The audience is kept in the dark until the closing moments of the show as to what exactly these woods are, but any well-versed theatergoer can assume the hidden and confusing nature of the woods typically used metaphorically in the genre will come into play.
Paffel’s choices as the leading man leave him as the one calm and collected character amid a sea of screaming and confusing family members — a contrast that helps to keep things interesting throughout the piece. Tremain-Woodcock does a fine job with drawing out the internal struggles of a soon to be college-bound teen, which were often unrelated to the larger plot of the work, without detracting from the “family secret” storyline. The cyclical drunken nature of Johnson’s character is spot-on as well.
While not the best choice if one is in need of a fluff piece to distract themselves from finals, “A Place in the Woods” succeeds in bringing a traditional storyline into a modern era.
A Place in the Woods continues to run April 19-22 and 26-28 at the Bartell Theatre. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for students and seniors for most performances, with $15 tickets available for Thursday night performances.