Written by Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger. Directed by Genevieve Fleming. Produced by Studio 58/Langara College at Studio 58 on Saturday, November 18. Continues to December 3
There are several choreographed music sequences in Studio 58’s new production, Wilderness, but there’s one standout. It’s a flashback to the night that the play’s six troubled youths were “gooned”—or transported to Utah for wilderness therapy, a very real, lucrative, and largely unregulated “last resort” for desperate parents who don’t know what to do with their children. From the choreography to the music, the sequence is brilliantly staged and deeply chilling.
In part, Wilderness’s refusal to shy away from the violence and trauma of how these kids arrive at camp absolves the play of its tacit endorsement of wilderness therapy, at least as depicted here by writers Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger. The script emerged out of two years of interviews with real families who sent their children to wilderness therapy, something Hamburger herself did, as well. The campers are Dylan (Heather Barr), Elizabeth (Alina Blackett), Mikey (Aidan Drummond), Sophia (Jessie Liang), Chloe (Caitlin Volkert), and Cole (Nolan McConnell-Fidyk), and we get to know each of their stories, as well as spending time with their parents and their camp counsellors—most of whom are depicted as unrelentingly cheery individuals who use a lot of therapyspeak.
As the teens slowly bond and begin to share their devastatingly real stories of everything from drug abuse and self-harm to mental illness and child abuse, there are some great scenes and performances from the talented cast. McConnell-Fidyk has an easy, defiant charm as Cole, and a magnetic stage presence. Barr conveys Dylan’s journey—coming out as a transgender man and coming into his own, finally, after years of gender dysphoria—beautifully, and brings tremendous nuance to Dylan’s character development from wounded and angry to jokey and confident. There aren’t any easy answers to why some of these young people have ended up in wilderness therapy; no two stories are the same and there’s not going to be a clear path for anybody going forward, either child or parent.
What doesn’t work as well is Wilderness’s heavy reliance on songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Pink Floyd. For the most part, it doesn’t need these emotional shortcuts, and save for the gooning sequence, the music and choreography isn’t integrated well enough throughout.
We already care about these characters, and it’s so much more effective when they’re in scenes together, fighting, talking, sharing, laughing, or breaking each other’s hearts. It’s important to give space to these youths and these issues, particularly when so many young people are trying so hard to survive—not just in the wilderness but within themselves.