A few weeks ago the Art Institute opened “Windows on the War,” a show of domestic propaganda posters produced by the Soviet Union during World War II. It was just the tip of a sizable cultural iceberg. Thanks to a 16-month project called The Soviet Arts Experience, there are eight other, similar exhibits opening in the Chicago area this summer and fall—including one with the fascinatingly agrammatical name, “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary.” Also, a bunch of concerts (lots of Shostakovich) and lectures. Independently, the Judy Saslow Gallery will be running its own propaganda poster show, “Soviet Slander.”
All of which makes me wonder whether we aren’t headed for a period of Cold War nostalgia.
I’m sure practically everybody would agree that the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the final collapse of the USSR two years later were great and marvelous things. But the world has gotten so much more . . . various . . . since then. Threats pop up unexpectedly and everywhere. Under post-9/11 circumstances, it’s not all that absurd to think we might feel a little longing for the days when superpowers came in pairs, everybody else was a proxy, and you could aim all your warheads in one direction, confident that mutual assured destruction was the ultimate deterrent—since, after all, who would intentionally blow up others knowing he’d be blown up, too?
Timeline Theatre’s production of A Walk in the Woods isn’t officially part of The Soviet Arts Experience, but it fits so nicely into the ethos of the project that you might think of it as a kind of fellow traveler. Set in Geneva, Switzerland, during the mid-1980s, the play builds on an actual incident in which Reagan-appointed arms negotiator Paul Nitze took a jaunt among the pines with his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, and ended up producing a breakthrough arms reduction plan. Here, the Nitze and Kvitsinsky figures spend the circuit of a year—summer, fall, winter, spring—taking periodic breaks from the negotiating table to commune on a park bench.
All is not butterflies and flowers between them, however. The American, John Honeyman, is initially hostile to the very notion of informality. Cannily written as an earnest midwestern idealist who’s never negotiated at this rarified level before—a relative rookie, in other words—Honeyman doesn’t want to lose his hard-ass, eyes-on-the-prize edge by making friends with the Russian he’s supposed to be outthinking.
And yet that Russian, Botvinnik, is formidably informal: a career diplomat, at once profoundly disillusioned and marvelously adept at manipulating Honeyman into some bonhomie—a little air, a little talk, a little humanity to set against the missiles and the extremely long odds against success.
Lee Blessing wrote A Walk in the Woods at least five years before the fall of Soviet communism, so not only its setting but its mindset is pre-Gorbachev. The only intimation that Cold War culture may be coming to an end arrives in a passing comment about nuclear proliferation. There’s no distance on the events portrayed, no recognition that a whole lot of what absorbs the two diplomats will be moot in the very, very near future. As a consequence, the script no longer has any inherent urgency. It’s a period piece.
But director Nick Bowling has done a lot of ingenious things to keep the dust off, the most ingenious of them being to reimagine Botvinnik (originally a male character) as a woman and then to get Janet Ulrich Brooks to play her.
The gender switch brings sexual tension—not to say double entendres—into the diplomats’ interaction, automatically multiplying Botvinnik’s arsenal of charms, introducing new shadings, and giving David Parkes’s Honeyman a non-ideological—personal—reason both to resist and succumb to his colleague. There’s never anything as tawdry as a suggestion of physical intimacy, but the dynamic between the two characters takes on a rich, Tracy-and-Hepburnish texture every now and then.
Brooks, meanwhile, is just plain brilliant. She carries off Botvinnik’s odd, potent mix of wiles, world-wearyness, and wonder with enormous intelligence, gradually disclosing the existential reality underlying the character’s bright manipulations. She also manages an amazingly realistic physicalization of a person standing outside on a winter’s day. It’s kind of alarming, really.
For all the new energy it generates, though, the transformation of Andrey Botvinnik into Anya isn’t the sole source of power in A Walk in the Woods. The play may be dated, but it still stands up as a portrait of two people trying to negotiate meaning under circumstances where it’s in awfully short supply and getting scarcer by the minute. A little like Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, they’re holding out for something they deep-down know won’t arrive. v