“Birnham Woods” is a play about people who live in their heads, and who find themselves unable to locate the exact address where their lives currently reside. Wendy McLeod's script is extremely intelligent, witty and perceptive. The characters are complex and the relationships adult and compelling. The political concerns, like all the best dramatized political concerns, are fundamentally personal, questions of values and social ambitions, how to achieve satisfaction in the ordinary. The play achieves a substantial weight over the course of the action, and the frequent, bright humor of the first act connects us with the very dark and painful consequences in the second.
Director Denise Winter does a nice job of moving the action and presenting the text clearly and with well-focused emphasis. The cast puts an admirable effort into creating these complicated individuals, and while each has success at various points in the play, they are simply not skilled nor experienced enough to fully embody these characters.
I'm hesitant to ever make this point, as I have so often seen amateur performances that were fully successful, but I think this may be one of those plays that really requires a professional cast. In part, that is a result of the script being so intellectually dense, but even more because it calls for such emotional depth and inter-personal complexity. Like “Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf,” this is a very large war being fought on a very small battlefield.
Two academics and their wives at a small, Indiana college are friends, and the play begins on the occasion of a dinner party where the center of attention is Kevin, an ambitious, womanizing professor who has just made an extremely lucrative deal with some secret government entity. He wants to seduce his colleague, Malcom into trading his knowledge of infectious disease into a similarly compromised and remunerative deal with “The Man.” He would also like to seduce Malcom's wife, Janice, primarily to show that he can. His own wife, Soo, lives in the reflected inadequacy of Kevin's dissatisfaction, and has a pretty clear understanding of what the others really want, and what she doesn't want any longer. Malcom and Janice's young son is the innocent victim of these high-stakes games, and the ultimate playing piece, albeit without ever knowing he was involved.
At the end of the first act, Malcom has agreed to “interview” with The Man and when he returns it is to a life irreversibly damaged, and having paid a price in moral compromise which will foreclose his ethical future. Janice and Kevin have had an unrequited dalliance which is still enough to destroy the tenuous relationship between Malcom and Soo, and to leave a permanent scar on the already defaced Malcom and Janice. It is not a happy ending, but it is perfectly earned by the drama.
The Malcom at the beginning of the play is a lightweight man who is only guilty of feeling satisfied with what he has, of the life he's leading. At first I thought Mark Cherniak was a bit too glib and off-hand, not really suggesting the depth of a brilliant scientist, but with his return from the interview his character gains amazing strength and power in his terrible defeat. His work in the later scenes of the play were the best of the evening, especially a long monologue describing his experience.
As his wife, Janice, Beth M. McHugh was likable and very natural, but what I missed was a sense of real desperation about her situation. This life of quiet desperation is killing her, and her longing for adventure, for romance, for a broader world in which to live has to be painful; it needs to be what she has to have, not something she would like. That's the only reason why the reprehensible Kevin, with his moral vacuum and his smarmy teasing and his lure of exotic locales and hot tubs can be such a threat, such a temptation. He is everything she thinks she is missing, and that is why she cannot see all that he is missing in himself.
And that's where the most critical deficiency in this cast comes in. David Wayne Johnson is just too nice a guy, just too everyday to carry the threat that Kevin needs to represent. It's been said that the definition of an intellectual is someone for whom ideas have the same weight and substance as objects. Malcom approached that, but Kevin never really did. As a result, Kevin's arrival in the stable life of Malcom and Janice never really carried the danger it needed, and his cruelty toward his wife felt more inconsiderate than brutal. Kevin is the power in this play that corrupts, and that power stems from his ability to make both Malcom and Janice feel that he has, that he is, something that could make their lives better, something they both need and want. There must be a face-to-face challenge between Kevin and Malcom when the play begins, and neither actor felt like they were confronting each other out of inevitability and necessity. Too often, they weren't even making eye contact.
As Soo, the intellectually less-gifted wife of Kevin, Heather Poulson was really quite excellent, getting solid and sympathetic laughs from her smartly comic lines and earning real sympathy in her unaffected response to Kevin's duplicity and mendacity. She was the one who most felt like she lived in this life. The boy, played by Iain Coates, was very good, delivering his lines with excellent diction and without any preciousness or pandering.
“Birnham Woods” is a very ambitious project for a community theater like Key City, and in taking on such a serious and challenging piece they aspire to the highest levels of theatrical performance. If this production fails to achieve quite that level, it nonetheless gives us a commendable evening of first-rate contemporary playwriting, a cast of actors fully invested in their performance, and a dramatic, human story with relevance and poignancy.
PICTURED ABOVE: Heather Poulsen, David Wayne Johnson, Beth McHugh, and Mark Cherniak
PHOTO BY: Eligius Wolodkewitsch