LENOX — More than three decades after “A Walk in the Woods” debuted on Broadway, Lee Blessing’s play feels unnervingly current.
The two-hander, now playing at Shakespeare & Company in the outdoor Roman Garden Theatre, explores the personal relationship that develops between two nuclear arms reduction negotiators during their private walks in the woods outside Geneva over the course of a year. Watching two actors at the top of their game — Jonathan Epstein and Shakespeare & Company artistic director Allyn Burrows — is a thrill in itself, but hearing their characters outline the fundamental differences between Russia and the United States feels heartbreakingly familiar as we watch Russia’s devastating war in Ukraine.
In just a few deft sentences, Blessing delineates the difference between the Russian and American attitudes: Americans live with the delusion that they are idealists, while Russians live under the delusion that they are realists. American conquests, he says, are without competition while Russian conquests happen because of competition. Russians, he says, fight collectively, defeating neighbors to make many wills into one. While a bit reductionist, Blessing’s summary reveals how entrenched these attitudes are and how difficult it is to find common ground amid such divergent starting points.
Blessing tries to define his characters with more universally human qualities — Andrey Botvinnik (Epstein), the Russian, is a jaded jokester who has been in his role for decades, while John Honeyman (Burrows), the American, is new to the negotiating table, arriving arrogantly confident in his ability to get a deal done. But, under the subtle direction of James Warwick, Epstein and Burrows find all the subtext, amplifying the complexity of these individuals while they play their parts in a diplomatic pas de deux.
Epstein comes on strong at the top of the play, delighting in his Russian accent, rolling his R’s with brio, teasing and gently mocking his adversary with his humor, double-speak, and misdirection. For his part, Burrows leads with Honeyman’s no-nonsense determination to succeed without delay. He tries so hard to keep things professional, formal even, only to find that Botvinnik defines formality as “anger with his hair combed.” But as time passes — marked simply by the replacement of two seasonally appropriate wreaths on either side of the stage — and their off-the-record meetings in the woods continue, both men soften in distinctly different ways.
Botvinnik’s enthusiasm begins to fray, illustrated in the adjustments Epstein makes to the Russian’s movements. He ages almost imperceptibly, taking just a little longer to sit, leaning just a little more heavily on the bench when he’s seated. The weight of his role — and his government’s unwillingness to agree to anything — is slowly starting to crush him. Epstein wears the role like a well-tailored suit, moving confidently through the character’s calculations until he accepts that this role no longer fits him.
As Honeyman, Burrows balances suave assurance with earnest Midwestern naivete. His speech to Botvinnik about the stakes — potential nuclear annihilation — and the need to look across the negotiating table and see themselves, could feel trite, but instead reveals his sincerity. When he returns one final time to the woods with a slightly revised version of the treaty both governments have already rejected, he clings to hope, even though he now accepts Botvinnik’s assessment that their task is not to accomplish anything but to create the illusion of progress.
The two men, who never quite develop a friendship, become bound together by shared convictions that disarmament is the right thing to do and by their frustration over their inability to convince their leaders of that truth. The outstanding performances by Epstein and Burrows bring an emotional understanding to these characters, deepening our connection to the situation.
The setting of the bench in the woods is vividly brought to life by set designer Devon Drohan’s placement of towering planks from an ash tree, the barren remains of post-apocalyptic forest, and a peaceful, almost spiritual setting that director Warwick has dubbed “Woodhenge.”
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.
A WALK IN THE WOODS
Presented by Shakespeare & Company. At the Roman Garden Theatre, Lenox. Through Sept. 4. $22-$72. www.shakespeare.org