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.

4 Replies to “Wilma Theater’s CHEROKEE impresses, in a way”
  1. Worst play I’ve ever seen! Cliche and contrived and just awful. Almost no one clapped and the actors literally ran offstage. I wish I could get my money back! First and last time at the Wilma for me. What garbage.

  2. Realistic, huh? Did you notice the flourescent lights, the truss, the teak border of the edge of the stage and the National Park plaques about the local wildlife? I believe the framed “realism” of the set is exactly in line with the framed “realism” of the script (Example: “What a glorious night for a play!” Blackout – Completely NOT realism)

    1. BC, respectfully, I never said the script was realistic. If you read again you’ll note that I imply the opposite. Thank you for your response, though. We all have different interpretations, and as reviewers, we serve viewers.

      1. I agree with Kim. The show was all over the place and too long. The acting was excellent, but story just didn’t come together and was long and boring at times. At the end of the show, it seemed fairly obvious that the actors couldn’t wait to get off the stage. I have 2 more shows to see at Wilma and hope they will be better.

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