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Cherokee — Wilma Theater

Cherokee interior

The first act of “Cherokee,” Lisa D’Amour’s comedy in its world premiere at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, involves a mystery. 

     The bigger and lasting mystery is why D’Amour wrote a first act at all since she kept “Cherokee” essentially a one-act play, and a naïve and foolish one at that. 

     The act that matters is the second, and the playwright would have been better off to augment it with a few salient details than to have attempted to build an act-long elaborate preamble to precede it. None of D’Amour’s material holds your attention for any significant period. About the only thing that keeps the audience attending to it at all is wonder about what happens to a character, Mike, who disappears from a Great Smoky campsite mid-first act and returns as someone who wants to be called Carlton at the top of the second. If it wasn’t for mild but genuine curiosity about how Mike vanished and how he emerged as Carlton, neither D’Amour nor “Cherokee’s” director, Annie Kauffman, would provide anything for the Wilma crowd to chew on or consider. 

      Even the Mike-Carlton episode is not enough to keep anyone enthralled for too long. Personally, I’d like to think of “Cherokee” as a joke D’Amour took too long in telling, a funny yarn that got entangled instead of unraveling smoothly and pointedly. The sad truth is I fear D’Amour expects her play to provoke thought and make people question the way they conduct their lives, to take a deep look at their priorities, and to cogitate on how close they are to the elemental objects and freely growing flora and fauna that surround them. 

      That’s where the naivety arises. If indeed D’Amour planned for audiences to take her play seriously, she should have pitched it at a level that doesn’t remind one of 1970s back-to-nature advocates or rabid 21st century environmentalists gone amok.  

      A little of what D’Amour seems to be proposing might be beneficial. City dwellers in particular should be more familiar with survival techniques, especially when it comes to differentiating between safe and poisonous roots and berries. Perhaps a more advanced, more first-hand relationship with nature is advisable. But like many a lecturer, who thinks he or she has something to say, D’Amour only dwells in extremes and looks at life options as one or the other, instead of the more realistic and amiable choice structure of one from Column A and two from Column B, an approach that offers both a solid core on which to build an entity, a life included, and variety to make it more interesting and individual. 

      You can see why I kept looking for D’Amour’s play to be a satire on two extremes, a comedy that would shed light on the foibles of two kinds of distinct existence. In spite of some good lines, often made better by the timing and delivery Marcia Saunders and her Wilma castmates, a joke, a jaundiced, tongue-in-cheek look at alternative lifestyles, one entirely urban and materialistic, the other entirely natural with few conveniences beyond a classic Coleman stove of a kind that was a camping essential from my childhood days (i.e. decades ago), never emerges. 

      Without that the play has to be taken at face value, and at face value, it is romantic twaddle of a kind one should outgrow by the time he or she reaches age 30. D’Amour is in her mid 40s. At face value, “Cherokee” is puerile  and boring. (Yes, I know “puerile” is an odd word to use in reference to a woman, but when the moccasin fits….) 

       “Cherokee” was so unsatisfying, so much an exercise in drivel being laid on with a trowel, I went into Pollyanna mode to see if I could think of anything that might redeem it, anything I missed during my hours of eye rolling at the Wilma. After all, a world premiere, deserves some extra care in analysis. The only charitable idea that I considered was D’Amour was writing about hidden resources, that each character in her play had something to offer, some aspect of life he or she could enjoy, that did occur to him and her as he or she coped with daily life. “Cherokee” might be a play about how competent and instinctive we are without being aware of our strengths and talents because we are not usually in a position or situation that tests them. 

      To some extent, this point of view gave D’Amour’s work more perspective. It would have held as at least a theory about that the playwright attempted to do, except the center of my premise was undercut by D’Amour’s main plot detail, the introduction of magic of some sort that changes one character from a callow follower to a survival savant, a man who innately gleans the secrets of nature and can apply them to an everyday lifestyle that will sustain him. 

      Magic, already too much imposed into today’s art and literature, becomes the bane of “Cherokee.” It robs D’Amour’s play of the one human, thematic path that made sense, the fuller person lurking under a conventional exterior. If D’Amour’s character had discovered his talents instinctually, if they had been a surprise, a revelation that comes by observation or osmosis, rather than by authorial caveat, “Cherokee” may have had some meat, some thematic nourishment to offer. By making change just happen, by seeming to pull an unexpected rabbit from an unseen hat, D’Amour sabotages any progress she had achieved in making “Cherokee” palatable or watchable. Once magic becomes the crux of the play, all common sense and views of human development disappear from it. It’s no longer about people. It’s about a gimmick the playwright should have resisted. Hocus pocus takes the place of imagination, and “Cherokee” hurdles into the land of the ludicrous. D’Amour has crushed her play’s vitality, its sole absorbing reason for people to watch it. Drivel, twaddle, and naivety are all that are left. And who wants to be treated to hours of that? 

      “Cherokee” takes its name from scenic spot in the Great Smoky Mountains that attracts thousands of campers each year. Its location is in North Carolina, about midway between the higher culture of Ashville and the more entertainment-oriented Tennessee towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Cherokee also boasts one of the Great Smoky’s first casinos, a ramshackle joint on Indian land, far from the kind of gambling palaces found in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or even Chester, Pa. Although I am not a camper — far from it; far, far, far, far, far from it — I enjoy the Ashville to Knoxville corridor of the U.S. and have spent several summers in the area. Cherokee is the one place I won’t stay. It’s too rustic and it’s casino is low-grade (though not uncommon for casinos in the South, particularly in the Carolinas). Gatlinburg is the town for roosting. It’s central and provides a cordial, lively place to spend evenings and gorgeous vistas to see upon wakening. 

     Two couple from Houston have a different idea from mine. The man from one couple just lost his job, so money is tighter than it was when he was the vice president of an oil-connected company. The others are open to a vacation in the midst of nature, nature that includes a shop to buy sodas and chips, a nearby McDonald’s, and, of course, the Cherokee casino. The campgrounds in Great Smoky National Park, an honest-to-goodness beauty of a place, cost less than most meals in Ashville, especially when one is paying only half the freight. The couples, one with the man out of work and the woman on hiatus from teaching, the other young and just gathering wherewithal to prepare for a first home and first child, like the bargain of the campsite and the adventure of spending time in a rawer atmosphere than Houston’s McKinney Boulevard. 

      Like most tenderfoots, the city folks make their mistakes. D’A mour’s extraneous first act chronicles several of them while also giving the four focal characters a chance to reveal their points of view about life and its priorities. The former oil exec, John, rails about people who mind business that should be yours alone, especially the ones who set arbitrary rules for housing developments and charge you for the indignity of restricting your say in your own property. The teacher, Janine,  likes the change from taking care of children, both professionally and as the mother of an 18 and 20-year-old she is justifiably nervous about leaving alone for two weeks, the likelihood of parties that might include liquor and pot being more worrisome than the kids’ washing and keeping the house in some order. The younger couple, Mike and Traci, also appreciates a change. They are the junior members of the firm by between 15 and 20 years and enjoy learning from the older pair who, frankly, have some wisdom to impart. D’Amour tries to add some texture by casting the older couple as white and the younger pair as black. 

       All goes as one can expect from urban dwellers roughing it. The compact zip-up tents can barely contain the two healthy-sized adults that inhabit each of  them, and there is some humor when the one occupied by Mike and Traci bounces wildly in response to the couple’s lovemaking, much to the amusement of Janine, who, you can tell, would not mind being a godparent to any child conceived during this camp outing. John yells in frustration at the Coleman stove and other equipment. The others try to calm him. Lots of dialogue is spent on how everyone met everybody else. And there’s Problem One. “Cherokee” is too static from the outset to catch fire. D’Amour is working with green wood that won’t catch and will smoke like the dickens if by chance it does. She insists on kindling when she needs great logs and a Sunday New York Times to ignite her sleepy tome. 

      Then comes a complication. Mike is missing. You see him in his boxers and a light shirt, walk from the camp site, apparently on a simple nocturnal saunter, but when morning comes, he hasn’t returned. 

        Although there is panic among the other campers, not even Traci, whose marriage is just settling into an easy routine, is not particularly emotional. It wouldn’t make much of a difference if she or they were. “Cherokee’s” first act is one skein of cliches, and a frantic reaction to Mike’s disappearance would add one more hackneyed idea to the mix. 

       John, Janine, and Traci try to disguise their concern by veering away from camp food via burgers and fries — “Mmmm, lots of salt,” Janine says — from McDonald’s and by gambling at the casino. They are joined in their hunt for  Mike by Josh, a Cherokee native, as in an Indian from the Cherokee tribe who happens also to live the North Carolina mountain town of Cherokee. Josh’s consolation of Traci eventually goes beyond the standard comfort of a friend to one in need. 

       Mike’s absence extends his friends’ time in the mountains and Josh’s opportunities to make headway with Traci. Janine comments that she might miss the start of school, her means of livelihood and her household’s main income with John unemployed. John has not made peace with life in the woods, but he is game to stay. Traci is torn between leaving Cherokee without Mike and remaining until he is found. No one seems ready or capable to make a decision, so Janine’s attitude that the only civil, adult thing to do is stay and see what the police can do to find Mike, prevails. 

       Mike is found, and the way he’s found is one of the few times D’Amour’s comedy takes firm root. His discovery is ironic and funny. 

        Once Mike is returned to the fold, the real substance, such as it is, of “Cherokee” can take stage. Mike does not come back as one familiar with his wife and Houston neighbors. He seems to have no memory of his past or that he is a visitor to Cherokee and has no history with its byways, foliage, and forage. 

       Mike now calls himself Carlton, the only name he seems to know. His expertise of all things natural and indigenous to the Great Smokies is phenomenal. Carlton can feel terrains, he knows the edible and inedible at a glance, he can hunt like Ramar with one hand behind his back, and he is wise in all ways of survival. He is even totally versed in Native American history, folklore, customs, and ceremonies. The man is a marvel. 

      D’Amour can not explain how this transition from the dependent Mike to the remarkable Carlton occurred. She barely tries to. 

      Carlton is such a survivor, so much a part of the soil, roots, and denizens of Cherokee that he can live off the land as his ancestors did before the colonial invasions of the 17th and 18th centuries. He is the natural man in all ways. Of course, for all of his gifts of living in the wild, Carlton makes his living and pays his way as a performer, an extra in a show Cherokee tribesman put on for tourists as the casino. Josh is also in the theater company. Alas, the double irony, though having comic overtones, doesn’t help make “Cherokee” one degree more interesting and entertaining. 

       That’s because D’Amour is heavy-handed in her second act, the only act of “Cherokee” that truly matters. 

        Carlton becomes a guru of sorts. Under his tutelage, the Houston residents actually consider abandoning their city lives and staying in the North Carolina woods. Janine has competencies she never dreamed of in her urban life. Traci become much more in touch with her inner soul. Josh has always scuffled in the mountains, so spending a winter with Traci is not so daunting. It’s better than the house he shares with his mother and brother, or jail, where he also makes occasional visits, theft not being beyond him. 

      The overall impression D’Amour’s play gives in Kauffman’s world premiere Wilma production is “Cherokee” sincerely advocates the throwing off the shackles and obligations of conventional American life and coming back totally to nature. “Cherokee” enhances the nobility of such a sentiment. Carlton, with Janine and Josh’s help, show living as natural beings is possible. 

      You see now where some hint of satire might help, in either the hands of D’Amour or Kauffman. You see where Janine and Traci taking the notion of living in the wild as a serious option has to be joke that includes genuine temptation and consideration instead of gambit that turns into the wrong kind of joke, no joke at all. If there’d been the slightest inkling that the Houston contingent besides Carlton had gone too far in enjoying the natural life or that they understood the extremes of what they planned to do vs. how they’d lived the first 50 or 35 years of their lives, “Cherokee” may have become palatable, may have saved itself from being an all-out flop.  

      After all, it is in the scenes after Mike is lost and following his return as Carlton that I see some dramatic virtue in the discoveries the characters, particularly the women, make about themselves, their capabilities, and their overall identities. 

      Kauffman plays the notion of living nobly in the woods as too realistic and too sincere. The Wilma production makes it look as if a capitulation to totally natural, pre-colonial existence, is the only honest and respectable choice.  

      I can’t believe this in D’Amour’s intent, but I don’t see another than makes sense, so ‘drivel’ and ‘twaddle’ come to mind once more, along with ‘naïve.’ 

       John becomes a raisonneur of sorts. Carlton has points to make for Carlton  and his continuing his natural, casino-supported life in the woods. But, in general, “Cherokee” does not fulfill the promise of the most interesting ideas it raises, the rising to the situation of people who, on first sight, don’t seem equipped, Coleman stove notwithstanding, for the challenge. It succumbs, rather, to the innocent, unsophisticated notions that might be warm and fuzzy to contemplate but are absurd in execution. At no time, no matter how much slack you give it intellectually, does “Cherokee” work or entertain. It’s too irritating to be amusing, too preachy in tone to be amiable, and, ultimately too boring to be worth an audience’s time. 

      While the Wilma production cannot make D’Amour’s play take on the dignity or intensity that would make it passable as an entertaining, it features performances that help the audience along and give it something to appreciate. 

        Marcia Saunders shows wonderful comic timing and good human instincts as Janine, whose teacherly creativity and diplomacy shines through her portrayal of her character. Jokes are not plentiful in “Cherokee,” but when Saunders has a line that can generate an honest laugh, she makes it pay. Janine also goes through a remarkable transition, and Saunders keeps up well with her character’s development. Hers is the most complete and realized performance of the production. 

     Kalani Queypo is waiflike and appropriately boyish in his performance as Josh, the native who comes to aid and console the campers who lost a mate and stays to be an integral part of the company. D’Amour hints Josh may have a role in Mike’s disappearance and conversion to Carlton. That may be far-fetched, but Queypo, as Josh, is as natural as “Cherokee’s” surroundings, and gives a sweet yet rugged comic ring to his performance. 

      Kevin Jackson handles both of his parts — Mike and Carlton are separate characters in several ways — with aplomb. Jackson shows innocence and honesty in each character. He also does a fine job of expressing deja vu in the few but regular instances in which Carlton has a flash of his former life as Mike. 

      Ashley Everage is a solid Traci, supportive and cheerful in the opening scenes, sincere about the desires Traci suddenly learns she has in the second act. 

       David Ingram has the most difficult role. His character, John, always keeps one foot rooted in Houston and his conventional American life there. He is willing to wait out Carlton’s return and becomes increasingly happier with aspects of outdoor life, but is also the pragmatist who watches the budget and wants to know how the Houston Texans’ NFL season will work out. (Oh, John, you had a sorry 2013 there!) Ingram is canny in playing the fine line between the cooperative John and the man who prefers the outside world, especially once he learns it is ready to welcome him as well. Ingram’s John also has the pleasure of discovering ingenuity and other traits he may not have known he had. It was on John and Janine that I tried to build my charitable theory that “Cherokee” was about people adapting in unexpected, unsuspected ways, to a new situation. I remain sorry I couldn’t make that look at the play a logical, viable one. 

     One area in which the Wilma’s “Cherokee” was a whopping success is in its technical and scenic design. Mimi Lien’s camp site is authentic and evocative at the same time. It captures the smallness of the world John, Janine, Mike, and Traci inhabit compared with the vast wilderness of the forest. Lien’s artistic projections of Cherokee’s great outdoors include a running waterfall, and she was clever in providing plateaux and levels for which the actors to play. She is abetted by lighting designer Drew Billiau, who can make the camp site alternatively bright and bursting with sun to darkly ominous and spooky. Billiau’s shadowy darkness added texture to the walk that, for a while, we believe led Mike to his doom.  Kudos to Lien, or whoever is responsible for the props for the construction of the car battery that John employs in one scene.

      “Cherokee” runs through Saturday, February 8 at the Wilma Theate, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday.  A 2 p.m. matinee is set for Wednesday, February 5. No performance is scheduled for Tuesday, January 28. Tickets range from $66 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or by going online to www.wilmatheater.org

 

 

 

 

        

       

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