by John Stoltenberg
The connectivity crew at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company creates some of the most imaginative audience-engagement gimmicks in town. Typically tied to, and expressive of, the themes inside a play, these fun diversions are always cleverly designed to pique interest in those themes and prompt audiences to personalize them. With Cherokee, Woolly’s current production, that team may have topped themselves.
Inspired by the quirky choice of four characters in Lisa D’Amour’s Cherokee to leave city life behind and go out into nature where they have transformative life experiences (think vision quest via stagecraft not peyote), Connectivity Director Kristen Jackson and Connectivity Assistant Abby Zan have devised an amusing online quiz to test one’s readiness to “go off the grid” together with a touch-screen version one can play with as one arrives at the theater.
At intermission I discovered an interactive display of theirs that features a map of the world on which one can insert a digital pin to represent a place where one has had a life-changing experience of some sort. Poke around on the pinpoints previously placed there by patrons and one can read an amazing range of captions that hint at scores of fascinating miniplays—extraordinary moments in people’s lives that might only have happened in out-of-the-way places. So captivated by the conceit was I that I put a pin on the screen myself and annotated it with a pivotal episode in my life I had not thought about in years (I won’t say where in the world or what I said; that would be oversharing).
The problem was, all these audience-engagement stunts in the lobby were more interesting, involving, and rewarding than the play on stage.
The production was first rate. Beautifully done, in fact. Set Designer Daniel Ettinger provides a stunning abstract forest of tall tree trunks that are lit gorgeously by Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills’s moonbeams, sunrises, and dappled sunshine that seems to have a life of its own. That we are in woods animated by natural wonders is also evoked eloquently by Sound Designer Palmer Heffernan’s insect and bird songs plus energizing music tracks between scenes. And Projection Engineer Aaron Fisher shows us witty and revelatory images of vistas, movie titles, selfies, signage, and interiors that locate the play’s story and move it along.
The direction by John Vreeke is also excellent, particularly the sense of momentum he brings to the pace. A terrific cast conveys Janine, an open-to-new experience mother and schoolteacher (Jennifer Mendenhall), and her husband, John (Paul Morella), a stiff-but-game oil-company exec. Janine and John have ventured from their comfortable home in Houston into the woods in a place called Cherokee, North Carolina, with an abundance of pricey camping gear and an adoring and adorable younger couple: John’s best friend Mike (Thomas W. Jones II), and his new wife Traci (Erica Chamblee). Mike and Traci are hoping to get pregnant on this trip, and the sounds of ardor from inside their tent bode very well in that regard. Out there in the woods, they encounter Josh (Jason Grasl), a strapping 25-year-old of Cherokee descent who performs in a nearby pageant-for-tourists (we see him getting into Indian costume at the beginning of the show). John enters and alters their lives in unexpected ways.
The problem was, these five characters, ostensibly in search of a life-transforming experience, seemed instead in search of an author: a playwright who might have made their endeavor seem less contrived, more credible, compelling, and transporting.
I did not see D’Amour’s hit Detroit—also directed by Vreeke at Woolly, also centering on two couples—so I have no frame of reference for what has to have been an expectation that lighting would strike twice with Cherokee. Perhaps had an electric storm been scripted (there was talk of rain once, but the weather was generally becalmed), a semblance of some such spark might have occurred.
What are we to make of the point in the play when Janine, who has been tracking texts with her children back in Houston as any concerned and responsible parent might, suddenly decides to get rid of her smartphone, being gleefully determined to unplug. Who is this woman? Is she secretly psycho mom? Why is her husband not fazed? D’Amour lets the moment go by unremarked.
And what are we to make of Traci’s reaction when Mike mysteriously disappears? She sheds a few tears but she moves on mighty fast. Having found evidence that suggests he’s dead, she is in no time at all a happy camper again, her arms open to the charms of Josh. Traci, impregnated by Mike a hot minute ago, is suddenly all hot to trot. Granted, Josh is handy and a hunk. But really, in what universe does Traci’s character arc not read as a coupling of titillating convenience in a script that stutters with exposition and evidences scant conviction?
I never got a sense this play was burning to be written. I just kept feeling it was fitfully flickering along like a boxful of kitchen matches trying to ignite damp kindling.