The great outdoors, for many of us, is a source of solace and perspective on our harried daily existence. But what if you actually needed nature to save your life, or your teenage child’s? Wilderness, a new documentary drama by veteran experimental company En Garde Arts, follows a group of teens combating existential crises — anger, depression, addiction — through a hardcore wilderness therapy program. Created by company founder Anne Hamburger and director Seth Bockley, using interviews with real teens and their families, Wilderness is a compassionate glimpse at the outer edge of teenage angst.
A smart ensemble of young actors turns the real-life stories from Hamburger’s research into an endearing constellation of high school kids in distress. One has anger issues and experiments with drugs, once climbing an eighty-foot crane while high. Another took to self-harm as an escape from online slut-shaming. A third is transgender, and began lying pathologically as a way of coping with the trauma of coming out.
The teens relate these stories in fragments, as they hike, set up camp, attend therapy sessions, and argue with their counselors. The program is demanding, beginning when the teens are “gooned”: kidnapped with their parents’ permission, then flown to a remote part of Utah, where they sleep on the ground and traipse through the backcountry with gear on their shoulders. Such stark challenges bring underlying emotional struggles to the fore. One girl, collapsing under her backpack’s weight, reveals that she’s stuffed it full of rocks for reasons she can’t explain.
Bockley stages these trials on a mostly bare stage: It’s just the kids, their counselors, and some state-of-the-art gear (the program, though rough, isn’t cheap). Upstage, striking images of mountainous landscapes glide across a series of layered screens. A sliding white curtain suggests a hospital room; cloth panels behind it, adorned with a floral pattern, evoke home décor.
It’s against that domestic backdrop that a second storyline unfurls, tracing the parental perspective. We follow a character called Mom (Welker White), whose son has barricaded himself in his room and won’t communicate (she is, program notes suggest, a stand-in for Hamburger, whose research was partially inspired by experiences with her own son). We watch Mom make a series of frantic phone calls, seeking help first from emergency services, then from the wilderness program. Between calls, she holds Skype interviews with the real parents of the teenagers we’ve met.
Though it’s poignant to hear from the parents, the interactions between the teens are what’s most compelling here — particularly when they remind us, as they get ready to re-enter the real world, that wilderness therapy isn’t a permanent fix. Watching Mom meditate on her son’s life, as she boards a plane to reunite with him in Utah, it’s hard not to sense the play itself longing for a happy ending.
There’s a lot of beauty here. Between scenes, the teenagers perform unison choreography, which is, often, evocative and graceful. In one sequence they lie scattered on the floor, shifting restlessly through the many positions of sleep. On the screen behind them, a projection shows them as seen from above, tossing and turning, their bodies forming a pattern that could only be glimpsed from the impossible overhead view — suggesting a wider perspective on life that wild places offer, one that we rarely get to see.
By Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
Through November 13
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 3, 2016