WILLIAMSTOWN — Boston theatergoers who were impressed by Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale’’ and want to further explore the work of this gifted young playwright might consider a trip to the western edge of the state, where Hunter’s “A Great Wilderness’’ has opened at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
It’s a flawed but affecting drama that strengthens its hold on you bit by unpredictable bit. You may well wonder during the scattershot first act whether “A Great Wilderness’’ is going to add up to anything. It does, though not in a conventional way. Hunter doesn’t seem to do anything in a conventional way.
Take “The Whale,’’ which was produced at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company a few months ago, starring John Kuntz as Charlie, a 600-pound writing instructor eating himself to death yet still trying to reconnect with his bitterly estranged teenage daughter. Charlie was grotesque in appearance, almost an alien being. But Hunter got us to look past that and recognize what was universal in Charlie: a father who loves his child and works feverishly to put her on a path to a happy life.
In “A Great Wilderness,’’ directed at Williamstown by Eric Ting, the playwright’s wide-angle view of humanity is evident again, as is his willingness to upend our expectations. Walt, a man in a noxious line of work — “gay conversion therapy’’ — is the play’s surprisingly poignant center.
Portrayed by Jeffrey DeMunn, Walt runs a Christian retreat in a cabin adjacent to a wilderness area in Idaho. For decades he has been “counseling’’ gay kids sent to him by their parents in the hope that sessions with Walt will turn them to heterosexuality. Now in his mid-70s, Walt is about to retire, move to an assisted-living facility, and turn over the business to his ex-wife, Abby (Mia Dillon), and her new husband, Tim (Kevin Geer). But before that Walt is determined to handle one last case: a diffident 16-year-old named Daniel (Stephan Amenta).
Now, this could have been an easy exercise in dramaturgical skeet shooting. All the playwright had to do was make Walt a hissable bad guy and just keep knocking him down. We can envision scenes where Walt moralizes about the evils of homosexuality, perhaps waving a Bible in the process, and browbeats Daniel.
However, Hunter went in a subtler and more surprising direction. Walt is a good and kind man, and he genuinely believes he is helping improve the lives of the youths he counsels. The playwright doesn’t let him off the hook, not by a long shot, but Hunter — who is gay and grew up in northern Idaho — is far less interested in message-mongering than in exploring what makes people tick, whether he shares their worldview or not.
Which is not to say that “A Great Wilderness’’ completely hangs together. There are stretches that drift and sag. Hunter excels at creating quick character sketches and suspenseful setups, but he then sometimes loses the narrative thread. While the six members of the Williamstown cast deliver generally fine performances, several of them, including DeMunn, seemed tentative during parts of Act 1 on opening night.
While that didn’t detract in substantial measure from the production, a crucial scene in Act 2 was undercut by Hunter’s use of Robert Altman-like overlapping dialogue. In a moment of high tension, it was frustrating not to be able to hear key exchanges.
The tension stems from the sudden disappearance of Daniel, who goes for a walk shortly after he arrives and vanishes into the wilderness. That leaves Walt to cope with the angry questions of Daniel’s mother, Eunice (Mia Barron), and with his own wracking guilt at letting the boy venture into the woods alone. As the hours of waiting drag on, bitterness flows between Walt and Abby, who relive a wrenching event from their marriage. Walt is also forced to confront another salient chapter of his personal history.
Lighting designer Matthew Richards and sound designer Brandon Wolcott make crucial contributions to the feel of the production, which contains some abrupt changes in time and tone. Welcome laughs are provided by the not-tentative-at-all Tasha Lawrence, who plays Janet, an entertainingly feisty park ranger who leads the protracted search for Daniel.
Through it all, Walt struggles to remember what, exactly, Daniel said to him — it was clearly significant — as the boy paused at the door just before leaving on that fateful wilderness trek.
DeMunn’s performance grows in strength as the character’s anguish deepens, adding up to a moving portrayal of an old man forced into a reckoning with himself and with the unintended consequences of his life’s work, and raising the question of whether more than one person is lost in “A Great Wilderness.’’