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The Craft of Negotiation: “A Walk in the Woods” in Sierra Madre

Nancy Youngblut and John Prosky work to understand each other in "A Walk in the Woods" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Nancy Youngblut and John Prosky work to understand each other in “A Walk in the Woods” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

It is one of the oddities of the arts. On the same weekend that Robert Redford returns to the screen in a film called “A Walk in the Woods” at the Sundance Festival, a play also called “A Walk in the Woods” – but a completely different walk in completely different woods – opens at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. While the first is a comic look at a hike along the Appalachian Trail, the show at Sierra Madre has a far more powerful and, though there are amusing moments, more serious statement to make.

The good news is that though Lee Blessing’s play was written in 1988 it still proves disquietingly powerful, at least in the solid production at SMP. This despite the fact its setting might read as passé.

Two diplomats meet a number of times in the woods outside Geneva. One, Andrei Botvinnik, is a long-time nuclear negotiator for the Soviet Union. The other, Joan Honeyman (the part was originally John, but Blessing has approved of shifting the character to be female) is a newly minted senior negotiator from the United States. The first is a practical man, the second a fiery and determined newbie on the international stage. As their encounters gradually shift from perceived antagonism toward a rather fatalistic friendship, they make statements about essential humanity and about the nature of high-powered international relations that are, at once, heart-warming and deeply disturbing.

John Prosky makes Andrei a gentleman and a gentle man. His aura of worldly sadness makes the character’s concentration on little joys that much more compelling. Nancy Youngblut gives Joan a bristly tension and a wariness at the start. Watching that stiffness gradually melt, and the obvious increased understanding as it radiates through her character, becomes one of the production’s joys. And watching how well the part of Joan balances that of Andrei, which one remembers that it was written for a man and has not been adjusted for the gender change, says much about how little gender need matter in discussions of this depth.

Director Geoffrey Wade has taken a script which could easily become physically static – a costumed debate – into a living thing. This is essential to the production’s success. Rei Yamamoto’s recreation of a clearing in the woods provides a fine combination of the representational and the implicit, expanding the sense of space on SMP’s tiny stage. This becomes particularly significant in a tale where the woods stand for the natural, for an innate if momentary freedom, and where two people who sit on opposite sides of a solid table can sit next to each other on a bench.

Although “A Walk in the Woods” centers itself around treaty negotiations regarding Cold War arms control, what it has to say about diplomacy and negotiation as an art form, and the nature of such things when world powers are the ones arm-wrestling, applies just as powerfully today as it did when the play was new. It may no longer be USA vs USSR, but power, potential frying of the world, and the entire concept of image having more importance than progress resonates disturbingly strongly. And that, as well as the strong performances, the humor and the humanity of the characters, is why a trip to Sierra Madre Playhouse would be a good idea.

What: “A Walk in the Woods” When: Through February 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 students 13-21, $12 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318

The Battle Between Hubris and Faith: “God’s Man in Texas” as character study

The cast of "God's Man in Texas" consult over tea at Sierra Madre Playhouse

The cast of “God’s Man in Texas” consult over tea at Sierra Madre Playhouse


There is a memorable moment in the film “Oh God” when the deity, played by George Burns, shakes his head over a wealthy television preacher: “If what he wants is to make money, let him sell Earth Shoes.” The struggle between faith and mammon which comes with huge religious enterprises and megachurches is one worthy of examination.

And that’s what David Rambo’s “God’s Man in Texas” wrestles with: the positive, even saving energy such a community can provide, yet the potential for hubris, insulation and extravagance. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, a polished, clean-lined production gives the audience food for thought.

Dr. Philip J. Gottschall, now in his 80s, has built an entire community around his enormous conservative church. There is a television broadcast, school from kindergarten to college, recreational activities, annual parades – a community at once welcoming and insular. His wife’s Bible study group contains the political movers and shakers of the Houston area. The take in the collection plate is in the thousands every service.

But Dr. Gottschall is in his 80s, and the board which runs the church’s enterprises is looking for an eventual replacement. After various try-outs, they seem to have picked Dr. Jeremiah Mears. Thus begins a struggle for the soul of this huge institution between the man who see himself in every part of the thing, to the man who wants to make it his own. Through it all, they are each assisted and given certain reality checks by Hugo, a devoted member of the church’s 12-step programs who provides the practical voice of the common man.

Ted Heyck gives Dr. Gottschall the right mixture of pronouncement, paranoia and earthly pride, as a man who cannot admit to his own aging, or that anyone else could really be as right as he is. Christian Lebano’s particular timbre of calm as Dr. Mears makes a fine balance against the intensity of Heyck’s character. Thoughtful, devoted, but increasingly frustrated, his demeanor as well as his lines underscore the differences in the approach of the two men to the same topic. Paul Perri is a hoot as Hugo, at once fragile and practical, silly and dedicated.

Director Nancy Youngblut keeps this very talky, often amusing piece visual, utilizing the tiny SMP stage effectively and creating a sense of a huge church out of nothing but a pulpit and the look in her characters’ eyes. This is aided by the particularly fine (if a tad wobbly) set by D. Martyn Bookwalter, which creates specific spaces with artful minimalism.

Obviously, this play leans a lot on sermons and talk of religion. Yet, the interest comes from the balance of those religious sentiments with individuals’ actions – and the purposes behind the words, when spoken. Even audience members who do not echo the passions of those onstage will find “God’s Man in Texas” an interesting, if not overly deep study of character and ethics.

What: “God’s Man in Texas” When: through May 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth, $12 children 12 and under

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