Playwright Steven Fechter puts a human face on that most reviled of sex offenders, the convicted child molester, in The Woodsman, the powerful latest from Coeurage Theatre Company and a production sure to generate both thought and discussion long after curtain-call applause has died.
We first meet 40ish, fresh-out-of-prison Walter (Tim Cummings) during an early session with court-appointed Ira Rosen (Mark Jacobson), a well-meaning young therapist perhaps still too green to go beyond school-learned basics when attempting to lead Walter back to some semblance of normalcy. (When Walter points out that keeping a journal could end up used as evidence against him, Rosen’s naïve response is that “It never crossed my mind.”)
Walter’s only visitor is his brother-in-law Carlos (Christopher Salazar), Walter having been the only one to welcome “the little spic poor Annette married” into the family years ago. Meanwhile, Annette’s refusal to see her brother remains firm, particularly now that her daughter Anna is exactly the age of the ten-to-twelve-year-old girls who were Walter’s victims a dozen or so years ago.
The Woodsman dares to shatter a number of black-vs.-white notions, among them the one that holds pedophiles incapable of adult sexual relationships, as revealed by Walter’s budding romance with fellow warehouse worker Nikki (Julianne Donelle), whose vow not to hit the road should her new lover reveal his deepest, darkest secret might not be the empty promise Walter’s particular confession would lead us to expect.
Complicating matters for our (anti)hero is the potentially tempting proximity of his apartment to the local elementary school, just six feet over the one-hundred-foot distance Walter is required to keep from small children, a nearness that allows him to observe “Candy,” the pleasant-faced, gym-bodied 20something who hangs around the schoolyard with bags of Snickers, Baby Ruths, Milky Ways, and Butterfingers to offer fifth and sixth-grade boys with “slender bodies” and “faces like angels.”
It is to both playwright Fechter and lead actor Cummings’ credit that the latest from Coeurage might actually have you sympathizing with a convicted child molester when police officer Lucas (Nardeep Khurmi) shows up to threaten Walter’s newfound bit of happiness and hope.
At the same time, Fechter never lets you forget that while “Once a molester, always a molester” might not necessarily be true, the compulsion to do harm is one beast of a temptation to overcome as we discover when Walter follows eleven-year-old Robin (Erin Sanzo) to a local park, her mere presence stirring up the prurient desires he struggles so mightily to overcome.
Will Walter once again fall victim to a young girl’s irresistible allure? Will Nikki stick by him through thick and through thin? Will Officer Lucas catch Walter en flagrante delicto and send him back up the river for life?
Though you won’t find the answers to any of these questions here, they may surprise you. As to whether they end up satisfying you or leaving you fuming, well that will depend on whether you see Walter as a monster undeserving of a second chance, or as someone capable of redemption.
It helps enormously (for those willing to give Walter the benefit of the doubt) that the role has been entrusted to the brilliant Cummings, whose performances in The Normal Heart and Eurydice have won him a pair of Best Lead and Best Featured Actor Scenies. Cummings doesn’t just bring the deeply complex Walter to life, he inhabits his skin so fully that you will find yourself forgetting that it’s great acting you’re seeing and not great being.
Under Jeremy Lelliott’s incisive direction, a fierce Donelle, a compassionate Jacobson, a sympathetic Salazar, and a dynamic Khurmi all give fine supporting performances, but it is the superb Sanzo who, alongside Cummings, leaves the most indelible impression as a young girl who may have more in common with Walter’s victims than first meets the eye.
Lelliott opts for the simplest possible of scenic designs, a table and a few straight-back chairs in front of a black curtain, and it works, facilitating The Woodsman’s many shifts between reality and Walter’s imagination, the latter visited by visions of a nameless girl bearing a striking resemblance to Robin or vice versa.
This is far from a design-free production, however, with Michael Kozachenko’s striking lighting not only making imaginative use of a mostly blank stage but keeping us aware of what is real and what is not, and Joseph V. Calarco’s equally stunning sound design alternating between classical piano underscoring and ominous rolls of thunder. Emily Brown-Kucera’s costume designs are just right for each character.
Emily Goodall is stage manager. Ken Werther is assistant director. Donna Eshelman is movement coach. Tyler Vaughn is fight director.
Other than Cummings, The Woodsman has been double cast, so you may see John Klopping as Rosen, Gregor Manns as Lucas, Katie Pelensky as Girl/Robin, Cesar Ramos as Carlos, and/or Joey Nichole Thomas as Nikki at any performance. Venny Carranza is Walter alternate.
Coeurage may have first attracted attention some six years back as Los Angeles’ only “Pay What You Want” theater company, but it is the consistent excellence of its productions, whether musicals like Assassins, The Trouble With Words, and the recent Cannibal! The Musical, or dramatic offerings like Andronicus, A Bright Room Like Day, and Under Milk Wood that have established its reputation as one of L.A.’s finest 99-seat-plan companies.
The Woodsman is both Coeurage Theatre Company and Los Angeles 99-seat-plan theater at their most powerful and provocative.
Note: The roles of Girl/Robin are played by adult actors.
Coeurage Theatre Company, The Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Avenue, Los Angeles.
May 21, 2105
Photos: Nardeep Khurmi & John Klopping