STOCKBRIDGE — Henry David Thoreau is a man locked in conflict with his nation — and to a certain extent himself — in the smart and searching “Thoreau or, Return to Walden,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Berkshire Theatre Group.
The premise of this 75-minute solo play, written and performed by David Adkins and directed by Eric Hill, is that the writer famous for disengaging from the world for two years in the 1840s to live near Walden Pond in Concord has returned to those same woods more than a decade later. This time, however, the world is very much with him.
Newspapers are reporting the hanging of abolitionist John Brown, searing Thoreau’s conscience and forcing him to confront the question of how he, and any of us, should respond to racial injustice. A matter of moral urgency then, when slavery was still entrenched, it very much remains one today, in the aftermath of last week’s horrifying massacre at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
“John Brown did not wait till he was personally interfered with before he gave his life to the cause of the oppressed,’’ Adkins’s Thoreau says pointedly. Other lines, too, reverberate with extra force, such as when Thoreau declares: “I think it is insane to spend one’s life simply writing about such matters. Walden? I dwelt in an illusion. We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them. Who can be serene in a country without principle?’’ At another point, he notes that “Massachusetts deliberately sent back a black man to slavery — no, a man — NO! Anthony Burns,’’ then adds bitingly: “I see men going about their business as if nothing had happened.’’
A strength of “Thoreau’’ is that such statements register not just as condemnations of a misguided nation but also as an agonized self-indictment by a conscience-stricken author who is questioning his own commitment to social change, who realizes that for all his talk of resistance he, too, has largely continued to go about his “business’’ while injustice reigned. Thoreau delivers the expected hymns to the consolations and purity of nature (“Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise,’’ he observes), but we can glimpse hints that he also understands that living in the woods can be a retreat. Intriguingly, the certitude we associate with this strong-minded author gives way to measures of self-doubt.
“Thoreau’’ represents the latest of several collaborations between Adkins and director Hill, who was also at the helm of last summer’s fine BTG production of Michael Frayn’s “Benefactors,’’ in which the actor portrayed an architect who encounters complications in his bid to transform the lives of poor residents by designing innovative public housing. Last fall, Adkins played Edgar Allan Poe in Hill’s “Poe,’’ also at BTG.
Adkins constructed “Thoreau’’ from the author’s own words in such books and essays as “Walden,’’ “Civil Disobedience,’’ “Slavery in Massachusetts,’’ and “A Plea for Captain John Brown.’’ Michael J. Riha’s set features more than 200 pages of excerpts from “Walden,’’ pasted on the stage and around the theater.
As both author and actor, Adkins demonstrates an impressive commitment to capture Thoreau’s complicated essence (and an impressive skill with an ax, too, splitting an upright log at one point). There are times when his script meanders a bit, as Thoreau was wont to do, and there are moments, too, especially early on in the play, when Adkins overdoes his subject’s eccentricities, pushing him perilously close to mad-prophet caricature with widened eyes and gesticulations.
But in general Adkins finds the proper balance between fervor and a kind of rigorous clarity. As his play pushes deeper into the heart of the matter, he persuasively embodies a Thoreau more inclined to hard questions than comforting answers.
THOREAU OR, RETURN TO WALDEN
Written by David Adkins.
From the words of
Henry David Thoreau.
Directed by Eric Hill
Set, Michael J. Riha. Costumes, David Murin. Lights, Matthew E. Adelson. Sound, J. Hagenbuckle.
Presented by Berkshire Theatre Group
At: Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, through July 11
Tickets: $50, 413-997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin