The Streamed and In-Person Walden Grows Futuristically Strong and True Outdoors Thanks to TheaterWorks Hartford

The Streaming Experience: TheaterWorks Hartford’s Walden

By Ross

The world is collapsing all around us,” they tell us in the dynamic environmental Walden, and it’s impossible not to take in that sentiment and feel it hit hard and deep into our collective soul. It’s exactly what, I feel, we all are experiencing these days. The news cycle is continually playing havoc with our hope and belief systems, smashing us left, right, and center with bad news and images from Afghanistan and Lebanon (to name only two), not to mention the constant weight of COVID variants, infection numbers, hospitalizations, and possible lockdowns, alongside the horrifically upsetting topic of global warming, and the seemingly irreversible damage we are doing to our planet daily. It’s nonstop, and overwhelming to say the least. And in that emphatically stated idea at the heart of Walden, the in-person and streamed production of Amy Berryman’s captivating debut play, the warning, as terrifying as it is, appears to be true, not just in the play, but in everything that surrounds our current newsworthy reality.

Gabriel Brown and Diana Oh In TheaterWorks Hartford’s Walden.

Brought back and extended by popular demand by TheaterWorks Hartford, in partnership with Riverfront Recapture, Walden delivers a sideways punch to the gut that resonates with emotional connection and clarity, just like we remembered before live theatre went dark back in March of 2020. The crickets lull us peacefully, as the opening streamed bits of photography, delicately assembled by Miceli Productions, the video production and editing company responsible for all of the visuals here, blow in the fresh-aired wonderment that surrounds this live (and lucky) outdoor audience. “It’s totally safe,..you don’t need a mask,” they say to their futuristic newly-arrived guest, and somehow, internally, we feel the same sense of peace settling into our bones. Directed with finesse, like a gentle but knowing wind, by Mei Ann Teo (Jillian Walker’s SKiNFoLK: An American Show), the live production and filming deserves a “Brian Brew” toast, for saving us all in this time of deep concern. Deep in the roots of this beautifully crafted site-specific production, dutifully taking place on a natural tree-lined site close to the Connecticut River, the enhanced sounds by Hao Bai’s 360-degree sound design bridges the future to our present with precision and insight. Somewhere in the creation of this environmentally friendly production, the company’s first outdoor show in its 35-year history, the play finds its way to the heart of our concern, digging itself into the multi-layered dynamic without ever losing its strong political persona, becoming as compelling and awe-inspiring as the land that surrounds the staging.

In the gorgeously envisioned remote cabin in the woods, impeccably designed by You-Shin Chen (AFO’s Monsoon Season), a former NASA architect, Stella, embodied beautifully by an engaging Diana Oh ({my lingerie play}), is working hard to build and grow a newly redesigned life with a climate-conscious Earth Activist by the name of Bryan, passionately played by the deliberate Gabriel Brown (Signature Theatre’s Love and Money). Their low impact habitation, consisting of a stunningly constructed cabin, a chicken coop, and a well cared for vegetable garden, dynamically brought to light by lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk-Yew, takes on the serenity and power of the trees and the wind. As dusk flows across the landscape, the couple prepares, in their own way, for an arrival and a celebration (“but not a party“), but it’s clear that a storm seems to be brewing somewhere beyond the leaves and the river, and what kind of storm it will be remains unclear.

Jenna Yi and Diana Oh In TheaterWorks Hartford’s Walden.

Stella, it seems with great conflict, has invited her estranged twin sister, Cassie, portrayed with clear conviction by Jeena Yi (Ivo Van Hove’s Network), to their little slice of eco-heavan. The sister is a NASA botanist, fresh of the ship after a celebrated year-long mission on the Moon. As the two try to find unity and connection over a glass of vintage wine, tender old wounds show their thorns, playing havoc with their reunion and the introduction by Stella of Bryan, her fiance to their fragile dynamic. It’s a strongly constructed conflict, easily displayed in Alice Tavener’s stellar costumes that reinforce the tug of war between future and DIY-repurposed design. Deeply rooted in a sibling rivalry that tore them apart many years ago, both unearth and share their twisted struggle to find a more fulfilled life sprouting forth with meaning and connection, each while feeling the uneasy push and pull of historical familial forces that were planted so firmly by a now deceased father.

In this gorgeous invention by Berryman, the North American premiere of her play marks the glorious return to in-person viewing for TheaterWorks Hartford. Having opened on July 29th, Walden has been made available for streaming online from August 15th to the 29th. For those of us who stream it online, and for those lucky souls in the audience wearing sanitized headsets, the intimacy and connection to the immersive environment is palpable. Set in the not-so-distant future, the play sets its global ambitions inside a compelling story about sisters dealing with grief, disconnection, jealousy, and an unforgiving and unspoken estrangement. It digs its way through the tangles of discontentment, unearthing themes of climate change, space travel, and a rivalry that has been planted deep in the earth for ages. We “really messed this one up,” they say, and even though, at that particular moment in the play, they are talking about our planet, the more intimate concept seems to parallel their fractured attachment and complex engagement. The central question that follows, in a way, is about both of these circling hemispheres; the personal intimate dilemma and the much larger global crises. Is it “way too late to make a difference?” they wonder, yet trapped inside that tough question, these three characters take on both realms, hoping to find some sort of balance and mutual understanding in the futuristic predicament that has grown up strong before them.

Walden came from my deep anxiety about climate change,” playwright Amy Berryman (The Whole of You) explains. “It’s set in the future where climate change has intensified, and humanity is struggling with whether to save the planet or flee it.” The same could be said of the two pairs of relationships so wisely seeded in the dirt and design of Walden. Growing up and outward with deliberation within this site-specific, outdoor, immersive staging that embraces the natural beauty of light and air, the intensity of the earth’s desperation for salvation encapsulates every twist and turn of this stunningly crafted play. As the sun sets, and darkness encroaches on the land that surround the audience and the set, the wrestling for identity around a Mars mission intensities, tearing at the fabric of their fragile relationships. Will they flee in desperation? Or will they stay and fight to save all that could grow up strong underneath their feet?

Gabriel Brown, Diana Oh, and Jenna Yi In TheaterWorks Hartford’s Walden.

In-person performances of Walden, starting at $95, will take place at Riverfront Recapture, located at 100 Meadow Road in Windsor, CT, and will run Tuesday–Sunday at 8pm through August 29, 2021. A recording of the production will be available to stream for $25 from August 15–29, 2021. Tickets can be purchased online at www.twhartford.org or by calling 860.527.7838.

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