By Morgan Politzer
Is there ever a moment when theater is no longer theater and starts becoming real life? Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger’s “Wilderness,” a new multimedia play, certainly seems to say so.
Based on true events, “Wilderness” chronicles the story of six troubled teens as they battle their inner demons in the desert of Utah. In a post-production panel, writer Anne Hamburger described her journey with her son and her acceptance that he “needed more help than I could provide.”
In learning to cope with the “complexities of parenting” and help “lift the veil of secrecy and shame around issues of mental health,” Hamburger and co-writer Seth Bockley traveled to Utah to find groups of adolescents coming to terms with their sense of self and the value of human connections.
“As an artist, I knew that we weren’t alone and that our shared human experience demanded a home on stage where I could use the power of theatre to explore the wilderness of emotions that knows no societal boundaries,” she said in a press release.
The title of the play refers to the name of an immersive psychological group therapy program in which troubled teens spend days or weeks in treatment. But it also has a more metaphorical meaning: None of us ever truly know where we are going. We can spend years wandering alone, or we can learn to trust those around us to help us navigate the twisting and turning path of life.
Presented by En Garde Arts, the production incorporates real interviews with the parents of the six adolescents portrayed in the show. Their true stories, as well as Hamburger’s, inspired a unique and wonderful piece of contemporary theater.
Six actors portray young men and women with various mental health issues as they come together in the mountains of Utah. They must learn not only to work with each other, but how to connect with their own sense of self. They are guided by the field “staff,” played by the same actors as they switch in and out of character.
Jan Leslie Harding plays the character simply known as “Mom.” Usually off to the side, Harding is the maternal figure who tries to unlock her child’s secrets, only to be shut out, and is eventually forced to send her child away to the wilderness. Harding also serves as the person interviewing the parents of the characters in the show, drawing out their personal testimony and account of the journey.
Michael (Jake Williams) is traumatized after his parents’ divorce. Although divorce is a common part of life, Michael has since developed a violent temper, and his sarcastic and colorful language hides a much darker and more painful relationship with his father. Elizabeth (Caitlin Goldie) must also come to terms with her parents’ divorce. Her confident facade masks her deep hurt and resentment toward her abusive mother.
Chloe (Holly DeMarro) reveals that when she was 11 years old, her best friend started spreading a rumor that she was a lesbian. Unsure of what that meant, Chloe began seeking the wrong kind of attention. Desperate to feel like she belonged, she felt pressured to have sex with her boyfriend, and soon began having sex with other boys. Her utter sense of depression and loneliness eventually led her to self-harm.
In contrast, Cole (Scott Freedman) and Sophia (Taylor Noble) turned to substance abuse and reckless behavior, although they were unsure of what gave them this need of attention.
Dylan’s story (Luke Zimmerman) took a different path. As he struggled to understand his sexuality, he turned inwards, shutting out his supportive parents.
Moments of humor and song break up the otherwise somber mood. Modern pop-culture references and the sarcastic comments of teenagers help lighten the intensity and build comradery between the six characters as they skirt around each other, learning to trust.
As Broadway spits out musical after musical, a darker truth of human nature is hidden away. We are less willing to see the raw, edgier emotion and instead gravitate toward the “packages tied up with string.”
“Wilderness” forces us to accept the heartache and hurt of human existence as we watch six talented young actors teach us about the struggles of substance abuse, love, identity and self-worth. Theater has long since been used as an escape from reality — something so drastically different from our own. It’s easy to get lost in the glitz and music of theater. But “Wilderness” thrusts you further into reality with its first-hand accounts from the parents of the characters. Believable without overdoing it, the actors bring the pain of longing and severe mental illness as someone else’s reality temporarily becomes your own.
“Wilderness” runs at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from Oct. 12-15.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Kennedy Center Press Office.
Morgan Politzer is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.