There is a brilliant bit of dialogue in Lee Blessing’s arms-control drama A Walk in the Woods which encapsulates the heartbreak at the core of the play. Now that the American Ensemble Theater’s production has come to an end I can tell it to you.
The idealistic American arms negotiator, John Honeyman (Anthony van Eyck) has hit upon an arms proposal – a minor variation of the one the Americans had just proposed and the Soviets rejected – which he believes can win the support of both sides. He urges his Russian counterpart, Andrey Botvinnik (Jeff Baker), to urge it upon the Soviet government. Botvinnik does so, successfully, but Honeyman’s proposal is rejected by the U.S. President. The American is crushed.
“He said, ‘don’t try so hard,’” Honeyman says.
“It’s a euphemism,” Botvinnik responds. He is getting angry.
“A euphemism? A euphemism for what?”
“For, ‘don’t try at all,’” Botvinnik roars.
The line earned laughs from the multitudinous audiences at the Fringe Festival, since Blessing had set it up so well by showing how difficult it was to affect real arms reductions for clients who were primarily interested in gestures. But the Congressmen and staffers invited by the Ploughshares Fund for a special showing of the play had a different reaction. These men and women, most of who work for Committees directly involved in evaluating the proposed START agreement between Russia and the United States or have deep arms-control backgrounds, reacted to Botvinnik’s revelation with knowing nods. They had been set up for this punch line by their lives.
A Walk in the Woods is an immensely cynical look at the superpower world of arms negotiation. (DCTS’ review of the American Ensemble Production is here.) Blessing, who wrote the play twenty-two years ago, posits that superpower arms negotiation is largely Kabuki Theater, in which the parties are willing to give up only those weapons systems which they no longer wish to use anyway. Is that criticism fair?
“It was a very fair criticism,” says an experienced Congressional staff members. Like most staffers, an anonymous modesty is his stock in trade, so he asked that his name not be used. “It took a long time to get treaties which actually required reductions.” Like Blessing, he acknowledged that the U.S. and the USSR were extremely reluctant to give up the thing that made them superpowers – their bristling array of nuclear weapons. “The two superpowers were superpowers because they appeared to have advantages no one else had,” he said.
“The play…gives a broader perspective on what the two countries were facing at the time, and gives us the human element as well,” he added.
In the late eighties, when A Walk in the Woods was first produced, the stakes for arms negotiations were higher than they had ever been before or would ever be since. A Senate staffer described the four-hour nuclear-war simulation modules he participated in at the time of Blessing’s play. These simulations were premised on the belief that nuclear war was survivable; “mutual assured destruction” was no longer the assumption in the late eighties. They were taught that if they could shoot down incoming missiles and retaliate massively, they could prevent a wider killing. Moreover, he said, the U.S. was prepared to engage in a nuclear first strike if a Soviet nuclear attack seemed imminent. By the late eighties, nuclear war was no longer unthinkable. Like many members of the audience, this staffer knew personally what the consequences of a failed negotiation might be.
“We were a little nervous about playing before an audience which was so knowledgeable,” Director Krista Cowan admitted. The anxiety was unfounded; the audience seemed to love the production. “We got laughs at places where it had never gotten laughs before (during its run at the Fringe).” The reaction of this audience, Cowan noted, helped to illuminate Blessing’s text.
The Ploughshares Fund, which was the sponsor for this production of A Walk in the Woods at the Stewart Mott house on Maryland Street NE, is a 501(c)(3) Foundation provides grants to help eliminate weapons of mass destruction and the causes for their use. “For more than 25 years we have identified and supported the smartest people with the best ideas for preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons and building stability in regions where nuclear weapons may be factors,” its website notes. Alexandra Toma, Program Director for The Connect U.S. Fund, was primarily responsible for setting up the event.