‘Walden’ Review: Getting Away From It All

We don’t know exactly how many years into the future Amy Berryman sets “Walden,” her incisive three-character drama. But the climate emergency has already worsened, along with a refugee crisis. Synthetic foods are now widespread. Cloning, too. War rages somewhere. (Everywhere?)

“The bombs on Christmas? We could see them through one of our telescopes on the moon,” Cassie (Jeena Yi), a NASA astronaut, says by way of casual conversation.

Cassie, recently returned from a lunar mission, has arrived at a secluded cabin in an undisclosed location to visit her twin sister, Stella (Diana Oh), and Stella’s partner, Bryan (Gabriel Brown). Stella had also trained as an astronaut, but she failed NASA’s physical fitness test. Bryan is an avowed Earth Advocate. He holds that the government should put money toward problems on Earth rather than investing elsewhere in the solar system. So the visit, though lubricated by bartered wine and home brew, isn’t an entirely cozy one.

TheaterWorks Hartford and the director Mei Ann Teo have given the play, which runs through Aug. 29, an environmental staging, locating it in a functional one-room cabin, ringed with chicken coops and a vegetable garden, in a meadow alongside the Connecticut River. (The set, rough-hewed and ingenious, is by You-Shin Chen; Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew provides the inspired lighting.) If you can’t travel to Connecticut, TheaterWorks has made the play available for streaming, also through Aug. 29.

That’s how I saw it. And if it felt wrong to watch a drama so concerned with environmentalism from a laptop, on my sofa, with a window unit whirring quietly in the background, tensions like this interest Berryman. She doesn’t situate herself as smarter than her characters, and distributes her sympathies equally among them. Still, go to Connecticut if you can, especially if you can get there by emissions-friendly means. Because that meadow looks beautiful. And birdsong and crepuscular rays are best experienced in person. Then again, there are no mosquitoes in digital theater. The filming is deft enough, and the performances — layered, unshowy — land even through the screen.

“Walden” borrows its name from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” a memoir, harangue, self-help manual and work of autofiction rolled into one clothbound volume. “Walden,” which extols solitude and self-reliance, was a favorite text of Cassie and Stella’s father, also an astronaut. And Walden is the name that Stella gives to the habitat she has designed for Mars. “I sort of think it reads like a whiny hipster’s blog from 19whatever,” Cassie says dismissively of the book. She isn’t exactly wrong.

Thoreau went into the woods, he wrote, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” While Berryman loads her play with vivid details and plenty of plot mechanics, it’s Thoreau’s question of how to live and what constitutes a good life that animates her. Should we live for ourselves or for others? Engaged with the present or focused on the future? What do we have to sacrifice to live in community and what do we have to forfeit if we live without it?

It’s probably that last question, which became a lot less rhetorical during the pandemic, that lends the play its poignancy. The humans of “Walden,” thrust together for this visit, are responding to various disasters — natural, unnatural, interpersonal — and trying their best to treat one another decently.

The play never fully resolves its philosophical dilemmas, except to suggest that no philosophy will fit everyone comfortably. Even Thoreau, who preached self-reliance while famously bringing his laundry home to his mother, might have agreed. “Heaven,” he wrote, “is under our feet as well as over our heads.” So why not have both?

Walden
Through Aug. 29 at 100 Meadow Road, Windsor, Conn. and online; twhartford.org/events/walden. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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