Playwright Lee Blessing is a Baby Boomer by definition. Blessing was born in 1950, right in the middle of the 20th century, and not far from the starting gate of the Cold War. Like all Baby Boomers, he was raised in the shadow of nuclear holocaust. The first, sobering use of nuclear weapons was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, that resulted in 200,000 deaths.
In 1987 Blessing wrote a taut, two-man drama about the Cold War and its relentless arms race. Now that play "A Walk in the Woods," which opened on Broadway in 1988, is being revived at George Street Playhouse. Although one might wish that a drama about nuclear arms control had been rendered obsolete by the end of the Cold War, recent Congressional funding into research toward new "usable nukes" has defied expectations. "A Walk in the Woods," directed by Ethan McSweeny, and starring David Adkins and Mark Hammer, opens on Friday, November 21, with performances continuing to Sunday, December 14.
In a true, 21st century interview from New York City, Blessing’s walk was not in the woods but on the city’s sidewalks via cell phone. Then came a quick mention of Starbucks, and next thing the interviewer knew the subject was ordering a Chai Latte. Only after this did the interview began in earnest.
Blessing is well-known as a prolific playwright whose work — nearly 30 plays in all — has been produced throughout the United States, on Broadway and off, in London’s West End, and in countries around the world. Unlike many playwrights, he has themes as numerous as his plays. They have included the Kimberly Bergalis AIDS case, the Lebanese hostage crisis, U.S. race relations, the world of legendary and controversial baseball slugger Ty Cobb, and many more. To each of these tough topics, Blessing brings a signature sense of humor.
Where does he find his themes? "I honestly don’t know," says Blessing, cheerfully. "I consciously try not to write the same play over and over, and I’m always looking for different issues, different subject matter, and different forms. I experiment with my own expectations, in a sense.
"It’s a challenge to one’s career, because it’s easier to market the same kind of play," he continues. "A playwright can become a label: With Neil Simon or August Wilson audiences know what they’re going to see. When they hear my name they’re more likely to say, `I guess he’s written another play.’ They don’t know what to expect."
The original "A Walk in the Woods" on Broadway was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Play. Its London production, starring Sir Alec Guinness, was nominated for the Olivier Award.
Although the play has been produced since the fall of the Soviet Union, Blessing says productions have not been as numerous. "What happens is, after a little while, people notice that nuclear weapons didn’t go away," he says. "So the play is still current with issues that people face today — the U.S. and North Korea, the U.S. and Iran, or India and Pakistan."
The play was inspired by a real and historic "walk in the woods" that took place in Geneva during nuclear weapons control talks in 1982. The American negotiator was the veteran diplomat Paul H. Nitze who stepped away from the table with chief Soviet negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky. Together they hammered out an INF proposal and brought it back to their respective governments. Nitze, now age 96, who served in government for 50 years, is considered one of the principal architects of the U.S. foreign policy after World War II.
Blessing’s play takes place in an idyllic woodland setting in Geneva, Switzerland, where two men get up from the negotiating table to take "a walk in the woods." We see them do this over this over the course of a year, in each of four seasons.
Andrey Botvinnik, played by Mark Hammer, is an urbane yet cynical Russian arms control negotiator with many years under his belt. His newly-arrived American counterpart is the idealistic John Honeyman, played by David Adkins. In this aspect Blessing crafted his characters to serve the plot, for in real life Nitze was the more seasoned of the two negotiators. "I switched the characters and made the Russian the veteran and the American the newcomer," he says.
Yet the play’s theme goes deeper than military confrontation and brinkmanship. "It’s also a play about two men who are learning how to communicate and trust each other," says Blessing. "We’re entering an era when fewer and fewer people can pose a credible nuclear threat but you may have a small group on one side and a nation on the other. We still have to negotiate on a one-to-one basis."
"Like nuclear weapons, negotiation and the need for negotiation never goes away. There’s a natural limitation on confrontation and armed struggle and countries reach it very quickly these days because the weapons are so devastating."
"The characters in `A Walk in the Woods’ are in some degree idealists who would like to succeed in their jobs," says Blessing. "But the off-stage characters play very important roles too. And by the end of the play they learn they were not intended to succeed. They were sent there by people who only wanted the appearance of serious arms talks; working for governments that were run by people who have a Machiavellian approach."
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Blessing is one of three sons. His mother was a homemaker ("as they liked to say in those days") and his father was president of a small linen and textile supply firm. He earned his BA at Reed College and earned a double MFA, in poetry and playwriting, from the University of Iowa.
Blessing commutes from New York to New Brunswick where he joined the faculty of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2001 as head of playwriting. He has also taught at Denison University in Ohio, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Southern California, and the University of Iowa. It’s his first full-time teaching position and he finds teaching suits him.
While in Texas two years ago, he found that what students were writing was extremely experimental. "They seemed allergic to realism — they didn’t even want me to mention it by name," he says. "They’re missing out, obviously, but they’re also getting a great amount of freedom."
Out of that experience Blessing shared a dose of freedom. "I purposely wrote a play in which every scene may or may not be real. The play, `Black Sheep,’ ended up being about race and led to two more plays on race. I call it my accidental trilogy." "Flag Day" is the trilogy’s second component; its third, "Perilous Nights," is still in progress.
Blessing’s issue-driven plays have proved widely popular. "Right after 9/11, five different small theater companies came to me to ask to produce my play `Two Rooms,’" says Blessing. Written in 1987, "Two Rooms" is a two-person drama about an American kidnapped in Beirut and his wife or girlfriend left in the United States. "Each one of them asked me to update it at first, but after rehearsals began they came back and told me it needed no update. They said, `It feels as though you’re writing about what’s going on right now.’"
The play was set against the real Lebanese hostage crisis of the 1980s and inspired, in part, by the experiences of Terry Anderson, the Associated Press journalist held captive for seven years in Beirut. The two rooms in question are the windowless cubicle where the American hostage is held and a room back home that his wife has stripped of furniture so that she can symbolically share in his ordeal.
"When you write a play, you’re fictionalizing from the experience of several people, so it was a very strange experience when I got a call from Terry Anderson who had seen a production of `Two Rooms’ in Connecticut." Anderson told him he felt that "Two Rooms" captured a truth about his experience. "He said it was honestly portrayed and that it had something to say — which is obviously an enormous compliment," says Blessing.
Similarly with "A Walk in the Woods," Blessing says the people who were really involved have responded to the play very strongly. "I’ve hear from people that Paul Nitze keeps a poster of my play in his home office."
"Although you may get rid of a certain kind of nuclear threat — the huge banks of rockets held by superpowers — the nuclear threat is becoming more Hydra-headed and more secretive because it isn’t under the control of just two countries," says Blessing. "More and more countries think they can use nuclear arms for negotiation. And more and more smaller nations are discovering that if you have a nuclear weapon, the U.S. will negotiate with you in a completely different way."
In a conclusion rife with understatement, Blessing says, "When problems are as chronic and as insoluble as these, it’s interesting to re-visit them from a perspective of 20 years."
A Walk in the Woods, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night. Runs to December 14. $28 to $52. Friday, November 21, 8 p.m.