Mutually. Assured. Destruction.
The principle that underscored the Cold War also animates "A Walk in the Woods," Lee Blessing's 1986 drama about an American arms negotiator and his Soviet counterpart working to hammer out an agreement to reduce their nuclear stockpiles before disaster strikes.
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"A Walk in the Woods"★★★
Location: TimeLine Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago (773) 975-8150 or timelinetheatre.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 20
Running time:Two hours, with intermission
Tickets: $34, $44
Parking:$10 valet or street parking available
Rating: For teens and older
TimeLine Theatre associate artistic director Nick Bowling puts a different spin on Blessing's play in his stylish, superbly acted revival, which opened this week at the company's second home at Theater Wit. Blessing wrote the play for two men. But with the playwright's permission, Bowling cast Janet Ulrich Brooks as the genial Russian apparatchik and David Parkes as her American adversary.
"Mutually assured destruction," or MAD, held that no matter which nation launched the first strike, neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. would survive the assault. For 35 years, that certainty helped keep the peace between the superpowers.
That and the efforts of people like U.S. arms negotiator Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart Yuli A. Kvitsinsky, who inspired the characters in Blessing's talky two-hander set in Geneva, Switzerland.
Predating the thaw of American-Soviet relations, "A Walk in the Woods" offers a fictionalized account of Nitze and Kvitsinsky's 1982 negotiations to limit nuclear weapons. The negotiations included an unscheduled nature hike during which the men reportedly devised a comprehensive arms reduction proposal that -- while promising -- was ultimately rejected by both governments. Its failure, as Blessing's characters wryly observe, results because political leaders like to appear as though they're pursuing peace, but aren't all that concerned with actually establishing it.
"We nearly always fail," notes Brooks' character, who points out that nuclear arsenals make their two nations superpowers -- a role neither wants to surrender.
"You and I are meant for nothing more than playing games in the woods," she says.
Blessing makes some canny observations and delivers several funny scenes. He also injects a bit of satire, having the Soviet character chasing and failing to catch a rabbit, an apparent nod to her country's aging leadership, diminishing power and failure to permanently reign in all its satellites (reflected in Poland's solidarity movement which had already taken hold by the time the play premiered). Blessing also sends up the U.S. by having the American character describe his unprovoked tirade on a Geneva street that has passers-by backing away from him in fear, suggesting the international community's response to U.S. bluster and bullying.
But setting that aside, "A Walk in the Woods" comes across as dated and formulaic: a nostalgic drama that posits if adversaries only sat down and got to know each on a personal level, they could resolve the world's problems.
Of course Brook's genial, cosmopolitan Anya Botvinnik (the wily, Leningrad-born negotiator), and Parkes' reserved Midwesterner John Honeyman (a midlevel Foreign Service envoy on his first major assignment) do end up sharing more than a park bench during their several walks. They uncover exactly what you'd expect: mutual respect, a shared sense of right and wrong, a common desire for peace, a pragmatism touched by idealism and idealism rooted in the pragmatic.
To their deepening rapport, Bowling injects a hint of sexual tension. But it doesn't really add much. In fact, it's a bit of a distraction.
Still, TimeLine's production has two very compelling reasons to recommend it. Brooks and Parkes -- both of whom have appeared lately in supporting roles -- deliver credible, expertly nuanced performances. In that respect, TimeLine's "Walk" serves as a fine showcase for the talents of two of its most accomplished ensemble members.
Also deserving mention is Brian Sidney Bembridge's sparse contemporary-looking set and designer Mike Tutaj's lush projections depicting each of the four seasons during which Botvinnik and Honeyman enjoy their strolls.
Ultimately, as polished as it is, the production lacks a sense of urgency, perhaps owing to how far removed we are from those MAD days. Since the Cold War ended 20 years, mutually assured destruction has become less of a concern.
It's been replaced by the zealotry of so-called "rogue states" like Iran and North Korea, both of whom have worked to develop nuclear weapons. Their leaders' rhetoric makes moot the possibility of similar arms negotiations today -- whether they take place across a table in a conference room, or on a park bench in a forest clearing.
And the potential for catastrophe still looms -- a point made clear by Tutaj's chilling images that confront us before the play begins. They serve as a reminder that while mutually assured destruction may no longer pose the danger it once did, other threats remain.