On Stage: Into the Woods

by Chuck Conconi

Lisa D’Amour’s simplistic ‘Cherokee’ doesn’t have the same impact as her previous ‘Detroit.’

Paul Morella and Thomas W. Jones II in "Cherokee" at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. (Photo by Stan Barouh)

Paul Morella and Thomas W. Jones II in “Cherokee” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. (Photo by Stan Barouh)

There is a peculiar fascination among reasonably rational Americans that contentment can only be found in an escape back to a more primitive life, living off the land. It is an impossible, unattainable idea that finds itself wrapped up in what should be by now a failed New Age concept.

That seems to be what Lisa D’Amour has written in her simplistic play, “Cherokee,” now at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. In “Cherokee,” two couples make their journey from suburban Houston to the woods of Cherokee, North Carolina, seeking a redemptive relief and an escape from the middle class rut.

There is an obvious similarity to D’Amour’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, “Detroit,” which had a successful run last season at Woolly. In that one, two couples, one stiff and proper, the other strange, free-wheeling, back-yard neighbors. Their mixed-up world echoes what would be coming in “Cherokee” when one of the characters laments that she wants to escape and live in a tent in the woods with one pot and one pan.

In “Cherokee,” the two couples are off for a camping expedition seeking the elusive nirvana in Cherokee, N.C. It is where a group of the Cherokee tribe stayed hidden in the Great Smokey mountains when most of the tribe was driven some 800 miles to the Oklahoma Territory in what became known as “The Trail of Tears.” Tourism and a Harrah’s Cherokee Casino are now the centerpieces of their economic culture.

The two couples, with considerably more than a pot and pan, come with their propane stove, tents and lanterns for the woodland experience. One couple, John, the eminently watchable Paul Morella and Jannie, Jennifer Mendenhall, who is struggling through a malaise of an unfulfilling job, are excited about this restorative adventure. John is an oil executive and takes little pleasure in a recent minor promotion.

The other couple, Mike, Thomas W. Jones II, and Traci, Erica Chamblee, are trying to conceive and we hear their energetic lovemaking in their tent on their first night at the campsite. They are younger and Mike is completely uncomfortable in the woods. On the first night he goes for a walk and doesn’t return.

There is some initial concern, but oddly enough, in the way D’Amour has written her play, the three remaining characters seem to move on and have quickly accepted that he is missing. They have produced flyers and talked to the authorities about it, but soon are indifferent.

Into the campsite comes Josh, Jason Grasi, a part Cherokee who makes a living working at the casino and performing in a pageant, “Unto These Hills,” that actually is one of the oldest outdoor dramas in the U.S.

He and Traci become an item, but when the three friends go to see the pageant they recognize one of the Indians. That’s right: It’s none other than Mike, who now calls himself Carlton, and has completely gone woodsy. He eats berries, bathes in streams and is dried by the sun. He is over his fear of insects and the animals of the woods.

John Vreeke’s smart direction and Daniel Ettinger’s set works to create a feeling of the woods with an effective use of video. In the end, D’Amour’s “Cherokee” doesn’t have the impact of the earlier “Detroit.” “Cherokee” feels like five talented actors in search of a play. It might have worked much better in the 60s when it was fashionable to denigrate the suburban angst and the trap of unrewarding and unstimulating jobs and lifestyles.

That kind of idea is tired and the Hallmark belief that true happiness can only be found out in the woods, or in small town America, comes from people who have never lived in those oppressive environments.

“Cherokee” continues through March 8 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St., NW. Tickets are $55-$93 and are available at 202-393-3939 or here

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