Steppenwolf Theatre

There’s one thing for which I’ll always be grateful to Ronald Reagan. I mean, besides the Meese commission’s report on pornography. I’ll always be grateful to Reagan for that time at the Reykjavik summit when he apparently blanked out and offered to disarm.

Do you remember that? It was a heady moment, and only Reagan could’ve given it to us. A president with a tighter grasp on reality would almost certainly have balked. But a man like Reagan–a man whose concept of history consists of great moments from Howard Hawks movies; whose notion of foreign relations ends with Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera”; whose identity can’t be counted on to outlast his attention span–a man like that might actually make the leap. Might actually say, Aw, what the heck, and let himself be wooed away from 40 years of cold war breast-beating with nothing more than the theory that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Might actually, and did. Or seemed to, anyway. Like I say, it was only a moment, and it was over in a moment–presumably as soon as the Gipper’s handlers got him back to the hotel room, calmed him down, and made him repeat to them exactly what he’d told Gorbachev. There was never any real danger of a spontaneous breakthrough. There was much too much at stake for that. The whole logic of nuclear diplomacy–the whole history of the nuclear age–militated, as it were, against it.

Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods explains why. Set in Geneva during a superpower parley on arms reduction, Blessing’s play follows a pair of negotiators–one Soviet and the other American–through the series of informal conversations they hold while ambling through a little wood. The Russian’s sly and the American can be a prig, but that’s not what keeps them from putting together and ratifying a genuinely effective agreement. What keeps them from that–as the much more experienced, and therefore cynical, Russian gradually reveals–is a complex of historical imperatives, imperial objectives, and plain naked instincts.

The Soviets and Americans won’t seriously disarm because they love power. Because they love danger. Because they love a challenge. Because they love war. Because they lack trust. Because they’re not interested in trust. Because nukes serve their needs, their egos, their objectives. Because they’re so satisfyingly fearsome. Because they can’t be stopped. Because the whole situation would change if they were ever to be stopped. For all these reasons, the Soviets and Americans have reached an unspoken consensus in favor of maintaining their arsenals indefinitely. Real disarmament would ruin everything.

The true role of a negotiator, consequently, is not to make progress, as Reagan so bizarrely threatened to do at Reykjavik, but to fail with dignity. That’s what the conversations in the woods are about.

A-bombs notwithstanding, A Walk in the Woods is a variation on a familiar sports story–the one involving the seasoned old veteran who’s lost his will, and the fresh-faced kid in need of wisdom. Botvinnik, the Russian, knows the score only too well. Honeyman, the American, needs to learn it. Garrulously, unconsciously, they help each other out.

And, of course, develop a heap o’ respect and affection for each other in the process. The concept’s distinctly hokey. But Blessing handles it with wit and a love made vivid by his passion for nuclear disarmament and its catch-22s. The character Botvinnik, especially, is a marvelous thing: a charming bullshitter who slowly discloses the horror beneath his charm.

Blessing’s triumph in writing Botvinnik is rendered all the more impressive by Robert Breuler’s triumph in acting him. One of a handful of Chicago actors who’d make any show worth seeing for me, Breuler belies his heavy frame with an absolute lightness of touch. He lets Botvinnik’s irresistibility slide so neatly into his emptiness that we find ourselves still smiling over the one as we fall through the other.

Rick Snyder’s a tremendous help in this regard. Angrily self-righteous at first–and for a good long time afterward, too–Snyder’s Honeyman very quietly and believably accrues substance, until he’s not only a straight man but a genuine moral counterbalance to Botvinnik. The interplay between the roles and actors, the shifts in their relative weights, is a wonderful thing to watch.

And so is their comedy. Under Randall Arney’s direction, the flow of the men’s repartee is as slick as the fit of Erin Quigley’s costumes. Which is to say, very.

I’ve given Steppenwolf a hard time over the last few months about what I thought of as the ugliness of their grandiose Grapes of Wrath. This Walk in the Woods is the finest rebuttal I could’ve asked for. It not only confirms that Steppenwolf’s worth all the argument–it also suggests where the company’s true maturity lies: and that’s in small, tough works like this rather than in vast, pretentious, and self-defeating epics. The difference is stunning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.