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A Great Wilderness
Beck Center for the Arts
Review by Review by Mark Horning

Christian John Thomas and Tim Tavcar
Photo by Andy Dudik
You can almost smell the pine trees and wood smoke from the Beck Center for the Arts stage set for its current production of Samuel D. Hunter's A Great Wilderness. The rustic lodge sports a working kitchen, fireplace, living area, front entrance, stairs leading up to rooms, and a side hallway. In front of the well-worn wicker couch there is an old TV, with VCR plugged into it, and a black rotary phone on the kitchen counter. As for the play, it contains the same high degree of realism found in the set.

The lodge is a summer retreat on the edge of a wilderness area in Idaho where families send their children to be "cured" of their gay tendencies through conversion therapy. The place is run by Walt (Tim Tavcar), a spiritual man who in his youth was tempted to live the gay lifestyle but managed through the help of his pastor to overcome his tendencies. Walt later married, had a son (who was gay and committed suicide when scorned by his family). This split up the family as Walt and his wife divorced. Walt began the retreat soon after, with the help of his ex-wife Abby (Lenne Snively) and later her second husband Tim (Bryan Byers), who came on as a counselor.

After over thirty years, Walt is being forced into retirement (and a home) by Abby, who fears for his safety at the lodge. Walt is led to believe that Abby and Tim will take over the lodge to help other youngsters but soon learns of their plan to sell the property to a church that Walt feels is run by hypocrites who will use the building and grounds for drunken retreats.

Unbeknownst to Abby and Tim, Walt has allowed one last youth to come to the lodge for two weeks of counseling. Daniel is an affable young man who enjoys gardening heirloom tomatoes and has more male friends than female. He was caught looking at gay porn online (the first time he had done so) and thus has earned a trip to the lodge from his preacher father and emotionally torn mother Eunice (Heidi Harris).

Walt attempts to put the young man at ease telling him that there will be no use of electric shock therapy or other horrifying methods such as food deprivation or hydrotherapy. They will simply take time to talk and get to learn about each other. After lunch, the boy decides to take a walk and when he does not return Walt realizes that he may be lost. Abby and Tim arrive and begin searching for the lost youth. When they are unable to find him, Walt contacts his friend, a young female ranger named Janet (Kelly Strand), who begins her own search. The boy's mother is called and she arrives to take vigil.

Tensions increase when a lightning-caused forest fire is detected, thus calling out a full blown search for the boy with rescue crews and helicopter. The searchers find his bloody jacket but no sign of him. With the discovery of the jacket, Eunice is convinced that Daniel is dead and goes home to mourn. Before she leaves, Abby and Walt get into a huge argument when he discovers their true intentions to sell the retreat. Walt screams at Eunice to turn off the TV that has a never ending tape from the home playing on it. Following Eunice's exit, Abby and Tim also decide to leave since this brings back too many memories for Abby concerning the loss of her gay son Isaac many years before.

Beck Center's Scott Spence brings out the best in his cast, keeping the action well paced and easily understood. Veteran actor Tim Tavcar is perfectly cast as Walt, who is unwilling to fade from view in spite of pressure from his ex-wife. Lenne Snively plays an excellent antagonist opposite Tavcar, bringing out the heartache of losing her son and fearing for her ex-but-still-loved husband Walt. She is a controlling woman who is convinced of her right. Bryan Byers gives excellent support without getting in the way of the true drama as does Kelly Strand in her role as the ranger and Heidi Harris as the distraught mother. Although his time on stage is limited, Christian John Thomas pulls in a fine performance as Daniel, the frightened teen trying to find his place in the world.

No matter what your views concerning the subject matter, this is a thinking person's play that will open up dialogue for the trip home and for days after. It is a controversial subject with religious overtones that brings a lot of emotion to the surface. Share it with someone you trust and be prepared to discuss the work (especially the ending) at length.

A Great Wilderness runs at Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood through April 9, 2017. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or visit

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