If a play is called "A Great Wilderness" and it's not about, say, Lewis and Clark or Ernest Shackleton, it's a pretty safe bet there's a boldfaced metaphor afoot. And without putting too fine a point on it, there's indeed a series of conspicuously open spaces at the heart of Samuel D. Hunter's play, which Zeitgeist Stage Company is currently producing at the Plaza Black Box at Boston Center for the Arts.
Maybe most pointedly, while it takes place at a "conversion" camp where parents send gay children in hopes of having straight versions returned home to them, almost no one there can quite gin up the moxie to use the words gay or even homosexual. Instead, these characters talk about children who "turned out that way" or "fell back into it," and about the intractability of sin.
Even when the earnestly likable camp leader Walt, played with potent reserve by Peter Brown, encourages his latest teenage recruit, Daniel (Jake Orozco-Herman), to use concrete terms when talking about the gay porn he was caught viewing, awkward ellipses stand in for an explicit identification of the love that still, it seems, dare not speak its name.
And in the play's triggering crisis, Daniel, shortly after arriving at the mountaintop camp, disappears after going for a walk. Various adults spend most of the play's running time searching for him, in a physical sense, but they never quite "see" Daniel as a youth pained not so much by his gayness as by the reaction it garners from the people around him. "What if I don't want to be straight?" he asks Walt, and the question lingers like the haze of a forest fire that will soon threaten his safety out in the wild.
Zeitgeist's production, under the steady direction of its artistic director David J. Miller, is boosted by some very fine acting. The trick here is that Walt and his confederates, whose agenda is odious to theatergoers who view homosexuality as a fact of nature and not an insidious sin that must be rooted out, come off as people fueled not by blind zealotry but by good intention.
As "conversion" advocate Tim, the current husband of Walt's ex-wife Abby (Shelley Brown), Thomas Grenon presents a richly shaded portrait of someone who is resolved to his life's mission but feels every fresh tear in his fraying nerves. Christine Power imbues Eunice, Daniel's mother, with a desperate sense of resignation. We see that her worldview simply lacks the capacity to accept Daniel as he is; in the best-case scenario, she muses darkly, he'll return from the woods only to be lost again by "turn[ing] his back on God." Crucially, Brown plays Walt as extremely sympathetic, experiencing a slow-burn crisis of conscience first kindled, we suspect, many years before. Orozco-Herman convincingly presents Daniel's discomfort with his surroundings and his own skin.
Michael Clark Wonson's lighting design and J Jumbelic's sound design gesture at both the encroaching fire and a gnawing sense of dread. Doubling as scenic designer, Miller does well to establish the surrounding wilderness with some artfully presented branches.
This is the Boston debut of Hunter's play, which was also produced in the Berkshires two years ago at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Zeitgeist's 2012 presentation of Hunter's "A Bright New Boise" was a New England premiere, Miller writes in his program notes, and SpeakEasy Stage Company's take on the playwright's "The Whale" two years ago was well-received.
"A Great Wilderness" is slow-moving in spots, and in the end Hunter may leave too much unsaid. But it suggests the damage that can be done when we leave our innermost depths unmapped.
A GREAT WILDERNESS
Play by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by David J. Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company. At Plaza Black Box, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 21. Tickets: $20-$30, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com