By Johnny Lloyd; Directed by William Steinberger
Produced by InVersion Theatre
Part of the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.29.15
VENUE #11: 64E4 MAINSTAGE, 64 East 4th Street
by Emily Cordes on 8.24.15
Keith Caram and Katie Lee Hill in In The Woods We Return. Photo by David Slotnick.
BOTTOM LINE: Isolated in a mysterious cabin, two haunted characters confront issues of identity, memory, and loss.
From the moment Sun Hwa (Katie Lee Hill) rushes, suitcase in tow, into Jack’s (Keith Caram) rural cabin, a pervasive, unspoken tension charges the space between the two. At first, we read this as typical awkwardness between strangers, a wary first meeting between vacation renter and host. But this discomfort soon melts into the realization that something’s off about these surroundings—and these characters—which neither they nor we can quite grasp. This unease looms over In The Woods We Return, widening and deepening as the play unfolds and lingering even after the lights rise.
This strangeness originates in the setting itself: the cabin and the forest exist in a bizarre vacuum, isolated in time as well as space. The only contact with the outside world comes in the form of mysterious supply bags left by an anonymous benefactor. An afternoon walk can turn into weeks of absence or outright disappearance. These conditions dovetail with the characters’ own turmoil, tempting them and unhinging them in equal measure. Sun Hwa’s arrival at the cabin is less a vacation than a sudden, deliberate escape from her former life and the specter of her college boyfriend Teddy’s suicide. Jack has not aged since 1972, the year he fled to the woods after an affair with his brother’s friend Sonny. Visitors who stay long-term risk losing their memories, or their sanity—a fate to which Sonny succumbed after joining Jack at the cabin, and against which Jack and Sun Hwa now fight by quizzing each other on the names of those they’ve left behind.
As weeks pass, the characters’ grip on reality unravels in direct proportion to their closeness with one another and the space. Here, like the Emerson poem to which its title refers, In The Woods We Return veers into the transcendental. Jack and Sun Hwa’s efforts to comprehend their experience lead to suffering and psychosis, while surrender and acceptance bring them closer to the landscape, their lost loves, and all creation. However, these feelings of oneness seem less an enlightening connection than a sinister erasure. Vacillating between existential panic and self-destructive catatonia, Hill convincingly embodies Sun Hwa’s fierce struggle against, and odd comfort in, her sensation of disappearance. After a final breakdown, Caram’s Jack finds an almost mystical peace in madness, describing with eerie calm his visions of multiple times, universes, and perspectives.
The play’s ending leaves us with more questions than closure: What, if any, logic governs this world? Is either character real, or the product of the other’s tormented mind, created as a substitute for what each has lost? Perhaps, like the characters, our very human attempts to neatly define the play’s events will only confound and frustrate. In any case, In The Woods We Return sticks with you like a memory, blurring, shifting, and reforming with each new examination.
(In The Woods We Return plays at VENUE #11: 64E4 MAINSTAGE, 64 East 4th Street, through August 29, 2015. Performances are Wed 8/19 at 4:45; Fri 8/21 at 7:15; Sun 8/23 at 6:15; Wed 8/26 at 7; and Sat 8/29 at Noon. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more information visit www.inversiontheatre.com.)