Cherokee is a messy play that strains credulity and defies expectations — which doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile.
Lisa D’Amour’s follow-up to her Obie Award-winning Detroit — also a Pulitzer Prize finalist — receives a lavish Wilma Theater premiere. In Detroit, suburbanites long for escape to the wilderness; in Cherokee, people who feel trapped in their dull lives actually attain what they consider the great outdoors: a North Carolina campsite, with a glitzy casino and an outdoor pageant celebrating the local natives nearby.
While the setup promises a comedy about pampered Americans dumbfounded by the wild, smartphones in hand, struggling to put up their tents and turn on their new camping gadgets, director Anne Kauffman’s production slyly winks at us before the play even starts. Mimi Lien’s set is a photorealistic representation of a serene forest, but we can see the backdrop’s edges and supports, and three-dimensional, obviously artificial trees are visually jarring in front of the pretty picture, which also contains a flowing stream. How could water visibly flow through a two-dimensional drop? Once we’re thinking that, we’re not looking at a stage representation of nature anymore, but a purposefully cynical interpretation. Lighting designer Drew Billiau underscores the point by several times flooding the stage with harsh fluorescent light that casts an artificial sheen.
We receive those expected moments of the struggle with a new environment among former oil exec John (David Ingram), third-grade teacher Janine (Marcia Saunders), oil worker Mike (Kevin Jackson) and mall worker Traci (Ashley Everage). “This weekend, I’m going to hold a bug in my hand!” says Mike, with a combination of excitement and dread. Nature seems manageable with an all-you-can-eat casino buffet nearby. John, particularly, seeks “freedom from the number of social conventions we all follow” because life — unemployment, prostate cancer — has betrayed him.
Suddenly the tone veers when Mike disappears: Is the mysterious wilderness turning on them? We’ve all seen enough crime procedurals on TV to expect something grim, but what happens — best not revealed here — unleashes magical realizations and philosophical musings. Some might feel it’s too much talk, but Cherokee is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw’s fantastical plays, in which bizarre events lead to life-changing ideas and lots of passionate debate. Characters opine to the trees, bursting with thoughts like “I keep thinking about love as a free power that forces us to act.” It may not be realistic, or as comfortable as the play’s sitcom setup, but their epiphanies ring true.
Josh (Kalani Queypo), a local Cherokee who waits casino tables and dropped out of junior college, joins the hapless suburbanites. He performs in the briefly heard, but unmistakably cheesy and Disney-fied outdoor spectacle “Through Mountains and Tears” (great music by Brendan Connelly), which tells of how the Cherokee were forced from their ancestral land by our government.
We receive more background when Janine, reading from her smartphone, says, “Here’s some exposition.” Wink wink.
Josh helps them connect with life in the forest, and with each other. But can they resist the familiar comforts of civilization, especially the Internet? Can living in tents on a campground be satisfying? Cherokee, like most good plays, doesn’t dish out pat answers. D’Amour challenges her characters, and us, to figure out what’s really important.
Through Feb. 8, $35-$66, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.
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