By 1985, the United States and Russia had stockpiled of over 60,000 nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India and South Africa had nearly a thousand more. Pakistan and North Korea joined the nuclear club soon after. A generation of Americans grew up under the threat of annihilation, taught to cower, to “duck and cover” when a bomb blast occurred, delivered by missiles or strategic bombers lumbering over the horizon. In Lee Blessing’s play, A Walk in the Woods, now in production at International City Theatre, two high level negotiators, a Russian and an American, strive to hammer out a deal to reduce that stockpile. The time is midway in Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the Great Communicator had increased the military budget in an effort to “bankrupt the Soviet Union.” The Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed “Star Wars”) increased the tension. Through all of this, negotiations to control the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce their number was ongoing.
In Geneva, a fictitious Russian diplomat, Andrey Botvinnik (Tony Abatemarco) leads his American counterpart, John Honeyman (David Nevell), into a forest near the site of the talks. Botvinnik, chipper and energetic, is an old hand at the game, while the dedicated and serious Honeyman, although an experienced negotiator, is operating at a level new to him. Botvinnik, an older man, is avuncular and tries to initiate a personal relationship, a friendship with the younger Honeyman, who is standoffish and uncomfortable talking with the Russian away from the negotiating table. As played by Mr. Abatemarco, Botvinnik is expansive, even operatic in his efforts to engage the American, while Mr. Nevell presents a tense, serious man uncomfortable with the idea of establishing a friendship with his counterpart. He is seriously stressed by the demands of the job and sometimes lapses into petulance. They are an odd couple trying as best they can to save the world. In four scenes, each taking place in consecutive seasons of the year, the two men establish a rapport that allows them to hammer out an agreement that they can submit to their masters in the Kremlin and in the White House.
Inspired by a real-life incident and first produced in 1987, the play is a product of its times, which in my memory consisted of a lot of posturing and saber-rattling. Certainly Mr. Reagan was aggressive in his rhetoric. The times did not produce anything close to angst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but things were bad enough what with the rise of the Ayatollah, Iran-Contra, Granada and UK’s Falkland adventure. The relevance of the play to our present day situation is clear. Although the total number of weapons has been reduced through negotiations to 15,375, there are still enough to destroy the world many times over. I woke up early this morning with thoughts of nuclear bombs crawling around in my twilight consciousness. I love it when a play teaches and stimulates thought.
A Walk in the Woods continues through May 22 at International City Theatre in Long Beach.