Wilderness is a thicket of good intentions and overstatement

Studio 58 is producing Wilderness.

Playing Cole, Nolan McConnell-Fidyk understands the strength delivering his lines like a person, not an actor.

This production makes a weak script worse.

The subject matters. Wilderness is about young adults who are struggling with mental health issues, including addictions. Against the young people’s will, in many cases, their parents have sent them to a therapeutic camp in the Utah wilderness.

Playwrights Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger—the latter sent her son to a wilderness camp—developed their script based on interviews with other families who have firsthand experience. But the results are choppy. With multiple characters and two timeframes, the script contains very few sustained scenes and precious little narrative development. Characters often stand and spew the content of their interviews, and the result feels more like disjointed reportage than compelling theatre.

The experiences of the young folks are often heavy—one young woman reveals that her bipolar mother tried to hang her when she was nine—but, because information like this lacks narrative context, it’s as if Wilderness is trying to justify its existence on the strength of its shocking content and good intentions, which creates an annoyingly earnest tone.

Under Genevieve Fleming’s direction, this production exaggerates the earnestness by adding overacting: everybody is wearing their anxieties on their sleeves. I remember being in a rehearsal hall once and watching a director coach a young actor. “Just say the line,” she said. He acted it. “No, just say it,” she repeated, until he finally got it.

A couple of the young performers fare better than the others. Nolan McConnell-Fidyk plays a wild boy named Cole with considerable subtlety, and, although Heather Barr starts out at the top of her acting lungs as a trans kid named Dylan, she relaxes in the later going and finds moments of spontaneous charm. Aidan Drummond as a counselor named Mikey, and Logan Fenske as a youth called Michael also intermittently raise their heads above the din.

Set designer Jennifer Stewart makes a disappointing stab at realism: crinkly rocks that don’t look like rocks. My hunch is that the nonlinear script would have been better served by a less literal design.

I don’t doubt that everybody working on this project is pouring their hearts into it, but the pouring is undisciplined, so a lot of that heart is splashing over the sides.

WILDERNESS By Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger. Directed by Genevieve Fleming. A Studio 58 production at Studio 58 on Saturday, November 18. Continues until December 3.  

Get your tickets here.

If you want to read an enthusiastic review of the original production—critic Charles Isherwood loved the script—check it out in The New York Times.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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