Wilma Theater’s CHEROKEE impresses, in a way

Marcia Saunders, David Ingram. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Marcia Saunders, David Ingram. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

John, a baby boomer, patriarch, and oil exec who has spent his life gaining, has lost quite a lot in a short period of time: his job, his health, even his erection, leaving him feckless in more ways than one. To recover his sense of self, his wife takes him to the woods of Cherokee, North Carolina, where he proceeds to lose his best friend, but also his anxiety, his cares and responsibilities, his preconceptions, his stake in capitalist society, and every concern he used to have besides simply being, and being happy.

In CHEROKEE, acclaimed playwright Lisa D’Amour is exploring our common desire to chuck it all away, flee for the woods, and mend the gaping hole in our overly-civilized souls. Her characters are what we all are, most of the time: absorbed in and diffused by the cult(ure) of money, work, family, and individualism. But in the woods, idealism, amnesia, mistaken identities, and the weird mystery of ancestral memories turn their world on its head.

Set designer Mimi Lien has built an extravagant set with eight ceiling-scratching tree boles; glowing, all-encompassing, photo-realistic forest backdrop complete with LED waterfall; a massive rock for climbing on; and even a compartment in the floor which opens remotely, which characters climb into for cramped scenes. It interlocks perfectly with Drew Billiau’s intricate light design to evoke the primal sensations: walking barefoot in the dirt, of being alone in a vast and quiet wood, and hiking in the great outdoors.

David Ingram, Ashley Everage, Kevin Jackson, Marcia Saunders. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

David Ingram, Ashley Everage, Kevin Jackson, Marcia Saunders. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

The Wilma has even commissioned a woodland display—a garden of North American trees and flowers—for their lobby.

Yet all this expensive-looking, sensual naturalism leaves a gap as wide and cynical as the one in D’Amour’s 9-5ing characters’ souls. The set is effective at looking pretty, but that’s about it, and this becomes reflective of the production as a whole. Director Anne Kauffman interprets the John and his friends and family as realistic, and Lien’s set follows suit. But under this lens, D’Amour’s complex, absurdist, even expressionistic story of mistaken identities, amnesia, tossed-aside livelihoods, and wild idealism becomes cliche and impossible to believe, and unable to make any kind of strong impression.

Except for reminding us that the Wilma can afford an LED waterfall.

That said, performances were great (David Ingram as John gives a particularly convincing performance) and the set was beautiful, so if that’s your kind of thing, saddle up. January 8-February 8, 2014, wilmatheater.org.

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About the author

Julius Ferraro

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, playwright, performer, and project manager in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This and editor-in-chief of thINKingDANCE. His recent plays include Parrot Talk, Micromania, and The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster.