A Great Wilderness, Samuel D. Hunter's bleak new play about a tiny "ex-gay" conversion therapy camp in rural Idaho, has given itself a tough job—to present the zealous Christians who run it as humane, sympathetic advocates for what is clearly an inhumane and unsympathetic cause. Hunter turns the old Christian bromide about homosexuality back on his audience, daring us to love the sinners (or at least some of them) but hate the sin.
He pulls this trick by disappearing the play's only gay kid at the beginning of act one. A new arrival named Daniel (Jack Taylor) goes for a walk and disappears, leaving the adults to wait, fret, reminisce, drink, and argue. With Daniel gone, their one-dimensional, do-gooder masks come off—and it becomes increasingly clear that their version of a supposedly happy, healthy, heterosexual adulthood is nothing to aspire to. With role models like that, any kid in his right mind would run for the hills.
The sweetest of the bunch is Walt (Michael Winters), a gentle older man who has devoted much of his life to counseling boys in the cabin where Wilderness is set. (The two-story set design by Scott Bradley beautifully evokes the doubleness and deceptions at the heart of the story. The first floor is a warm wood cabin with fading paint, a fireplace, and ancient appliances, but it twists upward into a dusty, abstract, and abandoned upstairs—A-frame meets Möbius strip.) Walt grew up gay and is intimately familiar with the suffering mainstream culture doles out to gay kids; he decided long ago that the problem wasn't the culture but the gayness.
"This is all about you," he tells Daniel in the first scene. "Getting you back to who you really are, the person you want to be." Of course, that's the narcissism of ex-gay therapy—you should want to be who we want you to be. When Daniel asks what happens if he doesn't want to be straight, Walt punts the question and suggests they eat their sandwiches.
Daniel was supposed to be Walt's last "boy" before turning the camp over to his bossy ex-wife, Abby (Christine Estabrook), and her husband, Tim (R. Hamilton Wright). But in the chaos following Daniel's disappearance, the adults—including Daniel's mother, an unhappy pastor's wife who shows up looking for her boy—painfully peel back the ways they've been deceiving themselves and each other.
Abby wants to close the camp and sell the property. Walt worries whether his years of Christian counseling did more harm than good, and whether he'd ever really "changed." Daniel's mother (played with an exhausted nihilism, like a character out of Edward Albee, by Mari Nelson) wonders whether her son wouldn't be better off dead in the woods than suffering a life sentence of gayness.
But for all its potential heat, Wilderness leaves a cold and distant impression. Some of that is in the slow pacing by director Braden Abraham, which often creaks but rarely crackles; some is in Hunter's characters, who don't all achieve the depth and resonance he seems to want them to have. The script's liveliest moments are in the few exchanges between Walt and Daniel—the old gay man and the young gay man, both sincere, awkward, and struggling—and in the mother's bilious barbs. In a 2010 interview about a different play, Hunter talked about his mission to write rural, conservative, multidimensional characters: "Especially during the Bush administration, there was this tendency to think that red states were red simply because they were full of idiots. But that's just not the case—it's much more complex than that." A Great Wilderness approaches that complexity but doesn't quite cross the threshold.