By: Paulanne Simmons
Broadway may have the glamor, but it’s off-Broadway where theatergoers look for thoughtful and thought-provoking drama. Too often this results in self-indulgence and pretension. Not so with Oberon Theatre Ensemble, a company that has earned itself a reputation for tackling complex and controversial issues. Last season Oberon Theatre Company brought us Drawer Boy, a play about reality, friendship and the healing power of art. This year the company presents The Woodsman, a searing drama about pedophilia.
Many people know The Woodsman as a 2004 film directed by Nicole Kassell and starring Kevin Bacon. But the film was actually based on a Steven Fechter play, first produced by the Actors Studio in 2000. Since then it has been staged in Vancouver, London and Germany (in a German-language production). Fourteen years later it has lost none of its power.
Director Alexander Dinelaris mixes sensitivity with suspense in a production that features Stewart Walker as a child molester who has been recently released from prison. Walter has moved into a shabby apartment across the street from an elementary school, something that surprises and troubles his brother-in-law Carlos (Gabriel Castillo), the only family member who still wants to see him.
Soon Walter has another visitor, Nikki (Jane Cortney), a co-worker who has a troubled past, an eccentric lifestyle and a nonjudgmental attitude about Walter’s issues. She refuses to let Walter chase her away, and they soon become lovers, but Walter still struggles with his demons. From his window, Walter watches a man he nicknames Candy, because he offers little boys sweets, Walter suspects in an effort to seduce them. And Lucas (the very effective Earle Hugens), a sinister police officer, lets Walter know he is under constant surveillance.
Walter has sessions with a therapist named Rosen (Gabe Bettio) who advises him to keep a diary. Sometimes Walter imagines sessions with his therapist. Neither the real nor the imagined sessions seem to help much. Then, just when things are looking up, Walter meets a charming young lady in the park (the very promising Mercedes Griffeth). Her name is Robin. She’s not quite twelve. She watches birds. She is innocent. In one of the most gripping scenes one can ever expect to see onstage, Walter and Robin sit on the park bench as Walter struggles with his unspeakable desires.
With the help of lighting designer Amith A. Chandrashaker and sound designer/composer Nick Moore, Dinelaris keeps the tension high. But The Woodsman only works if Walter, despite his awful history and surly attitude, remains sympathetic. Walker manages to keep the audience rooting for him through all his trials.
The acting in The Woodsman is uneven, and the production suffers from a low budget. There are times when certain fantastic or imagined events intrude rather than enhance the action. But Oberon Theatre Ensemble has staged this troubling play with confidence and conviction. The result is extraordinary.
The Woodsman, at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36 Street, through May 10.