Review: Teenagers Grapple With Their Demons in ‘Wilderness’

10.26.16
The New York Times

A fierce, sad gale blows through “Wilderness,” a terrific, moving new multimedia theater piece about troubled youth being presented by En Garde Arts in association with Abrons Arts Center.

The title refers to a program for psychologically disturbed teenagers and young adults that gathers them in the outdoors for days or weeks of group therapeutic treatment. But it also speaks to the idea that in contemporary culture, with its often fragmented families and onslaught of social media, kids today are navigating their way to adulthood in a world in which the old signposts have all but been obliterated, and the path has grown thick with thorny emotional underbrush. The result: anxiety, sadness, self-doubt, addiction and various other hard-to-vanquish demons.

As with prior shows from Anne Hamburger’s En Garde, such as “Basetrack Live,” seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the show, written by Seth Bockley and Ms. Hamburger, and directed by Mr. Bockley, draws on interviews with real people. It incorporates actual Skype interviews with some of the parents of the characters represented, projected on video screens. (My hat’s off to the brave men and women who agreed to publicly air their stories. And to Ms. Hamburger, whose personal experience partly inspired the show.)

Onstage are six actors portraying young men and women with various problems, gathered together, mostly amicably, at an outdoor camp in the mountains of Utah. The actors who play them also portray the therapists and counselors — or “field staff” as they are referred to in the program.

Welker White plays a character referred to in the script merely as “Mom,” often seen at the side of the stage, mostly looking worried or, as in an early sequence, frantically calling 911 because her son has locked himself in his room. But in addition, she stands in for the people who interview the parents of the characters in the show, eliciting testimony about their experience.

Despite the complexity of its structure, the production’s emotional fluency is bell-clear, as is its honesty about the complex and sometimes mysterious roots of the characters’ problems. Dig beneath the usual stories of broken marriages and adolescent angst and we discover wells of darkness that seem to have no bottom.

Michael (Jake Williams) developed an unruly, even violent temper after that most mundane of family crises — an unpleasant divorce. “I had an airtight childhood, and then it” went south pretty quickly, he says, although his language is saltier, and we eventually learn that his story is much bleaker. Elizabeth (Caitlin Goldie) was also the child of divorce. Her father reveals that her mother had violent rages and was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar. A particularly searing moment: Elizabeth’s confession that her mother tried to hang her when she was 9.

On the other hand, Cole (Riley Suter) cannot point to anything that caused him to slide into sadness and addiction at an early age. Nor can his parents. The best his father can offer is, “The beginning is, you know, he was always an interesting and emotionally sensitive kid.”

Among the themes “Wilderness” underscores is how vulnerable such sensitive children are to the emotional tenor of their environment and how seemingly minor incidents can cause lasting damage. Chloe (Holly DeMorro) reveals she first slipped into self-cutting because she felt isolated at school after a friend spread a rumor that she was a lesbian — Chloe was just 11 and didn’t even know what that meant. But her need to belong led her to be pressured into having sex with a boyfriend, and soon to sleep with more boys. “There’s like … bad pictures out there,” she says at one point.

The young actors — who include Taylor Noble as Sophia, who began therapy at 12 — are all superb. They manage to transmit an easy rapport, although the least interesting elements in the show are often the scenes depicting the familiar interactions among the participants in the program, or among them and the field staff. Mostly it’s the usual teenage sniping — Cole is particularly obstreperous — but also some bonding. They share complaints about how they were “gooned,” as they call it (short for “dragooned?”), into joining the program.
 
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