A rough reckoning in ‘A Place in the Woods’

Mercury Players' latest is fraught drama
A rough reckoning in ‘A Place in the Woods’
Photo by Jason Compton
The scenes between Shaun (Josh Paffel) and Alex (Lon Tremain-Woodcock) are some of best moments in Mercury Players Theatre's “A Place in the Woods.”

The first thing you notice about Mercury Players Theatre‘s production of playwright Erik Gernand’s “A Place in the Woods” is the unusual layout of the set. Instead of the traditional audience-facing-the-stage thing that most shows in the Bartell Theatre’s boxy Evjue space opt to use, this one splits the space vertically into thirds, with the performance space occupying the middle and the audience facing it on either side.

But it’s more than just fractional geometry that’s at play here with this set. There’s also some seriously fractured psychology. The stage area is strewn with diaphanous scrims of brown cloth hanging from the ceiling, partially obscuring the actors from the audience — and also from each other. That’s deliberate, and so is the fact that he scrims look like the trunks of trees. Trees that once hid a secret that ripped a rural Indiana family apart.

When the play begins, that family is reluctantly reunited. Shaun (Josh Paffel) and his son Alex (an almost saintly Lon Tremain-Woodcock) have come back to the former’s childhood home because Sean’s mom (a seriously crotchety Marcy Weiland) has begun to suffer bouts of dementia, and Sean’s ne’er-do-well older brother Brady (an oddly detached Edric johnson) is still ne’er-do-welling.

The dynamics indicate something’s off from the start. Paffel’s Shaun is all aggressive impatience, butting heads with his mom — who’s also aggressive, impatient and profane to boot — and massively uncomfortable interacting with Cherry, the local police officer (Kathleen Tissot) who’s still carrying a torch for him.

It’s the interaction between the actors that drives the drama. Paffel in particular successfully navigates a tricky path. As Shaun, his prickly oversensitivity is really off-putting at first. He comes off like a big-city elitist looking down his nose at the rube family he escaped, risking our sympathy for his character out of the gate. His depth emerges in the scenes between Shaun and Alex, which are also the most fun to watch, especially as Alex discovers the details of his father’s teenage life (mix tape included! WHOOO!). Tremain-Woodcock’s Alex is a laid-back mix of genuine concern (the dude really cares about recycling) and breezy que sera sera. Given how secretive and snappish Shuan’s been with him, it’s a huge wonder Alex hasn’t descended into a massive pool of bitter teen angst.

At the end of each scene, one of the actors pulls down one of the cloth/tree scrims, a literal metaphor for family members edging closer to revealing its secrets and finally beginning to understand one another and move forward. It’s an interesting device that doubles as a way to mark the play’s progress. The cards may seem like they’re all on the table, but they’re not. There are still a few trunks left to be yanked down/felled.

Director Suzan Kurry knows exactly what she’s doing with a drama like this. A few years back, she directed “The Beautiful Dark,” another riveting production of a different Erik Gernand play. “A Place in the Woods” plays out in more straightforward fashion — with a tidier ending, at least — but it’s no less intense and interesting.

“A Place in the Woods” plays at the Bartell Theater through April 28.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.