This past weekend, En Garde Arts brought a new multimedia documentary theatre piece to the Kennedy Center. True to the best of its genre, Wilderness strikes right at the core with devastating and moving true stories.Wilderness tells the story of six real troubled teenagers who underwent a wilderness therapy program in Utah, and is anchored by projections of recorded video calls with their parents. Wilderness therapy is relatively new but gaining recognition; it combines cognitive behavioral therapy, journaling, group activities, and of course the outdoors. The program depicted in Wildness is real and available to parents, though, we learned, not covered by many insurance providers.
Six actors play an assortment of patients and young counselors, mixing scenes from therapy with monologues. As the play begins, it threatens to get bogged down in tired stereotypes of fictional teens, but these teens are, of course, nonfiction. Projections of the parents’ testimony gives the show an amazing weight and responsibility.
When Holly DeMorro gives a monologue about Chloe’s bullying and self-harm or Scott Freeman describes how Cole said goodbye to his little sister after taking a life-threatening mix of prescription drugs and alcohol, the audience aches for these vulnerable young lives.
Co-playwright Anne Hamburger sent her own child to this wilderness therapy program, and she explores the parents’ perspective. Jan Leslie Harding stands in for Hamburger, speaking her side of the recorded conversations and playing Mom during dance scenes, directed by co-movement directors Devon de Mayo and Patrick McCollum and set to songs by Kyle Henderson of Desert Noises, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Kyle Miller of Tow’rs.
Harding’s journey guides parents through the excruciating process of admitting that they can’t help their children alone and that there is still hope in the wilds of Utah. But there’s the itching worry that this bleeding heart at the center of this play is nothing but a marketing ploy.
This production has closed.
I believe En Garde Arts is earnestly trying to tell an important and moving story – even from a journalist’s perspective, it is hard to trace this play back to the precise program it lauds and the program had no editorial control over Hamburger or co-playwright Seth Bockley. It shows. The teens have no issue bringing up how expensive the treatment is. The play also includes the story of a patient who relapsed into drug abuse after going to Utah (though a five out of six success rate is still an almost unqualified rave review).
Most convincingly, in a panel after the Friday night performance, Hamburger curated the panelists and conversation to discuss access to mental health treatment beyond just wilderness therapy. These teens’ hardships and their parents’ desperation were tied back to the greater struggle for mental health, and Wilderness’s heart felt like it was in the right place.
Wilderness has closed at the Kennedy Center. The tour makes a brief stop in Nashville, Tennessee, October 20.
Wilderness. Written by Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger. Directed by Seth Bockley. Performed by Holly DeMorro, Scott Freeman, Caitlin Goldie, Jan Leslie Harding, Taylor Noble, Jake Williams, and Luke Zimmerman. Movement direction by Devon de Mayo and Patrick McCollum. Set design by Carolyn Mraz. Lighting design by Scott Bolman. Costume design by Claudia Brown. Sound design by Mikhail Fiksel. Video and projection design by Michael Tutaj. With songs by Kyle Henderson (Desert Noises), Gregory Alan Isakov, and Kyle Miller (Tow’rs). Stage managed by Robert M. McIntyre. Produced by En Garde Arts. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.