North to Maine: A Journey on the Appalachian Trail
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nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 5, 2013
Playwright Brenton Lengel at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, 2008
North to Maine is an epic play about an epic journey, from Virginia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail. Playwright Brenton Lengel is himself a "2,000 miler," having completed the entire length of the Trail from 2006 to 2008, and the people he encountered and the wisdom he acquired as he hiked and climbed and walked have inspired a stunning and emotionally involving work of theater. This world premiere is presented by State of Play Productions and is directed with tremendous skill and acuity by Eric Parness.
The play centers around Adam, a young man who tells us right from the outset that he is searching for adventure in his life; that's why he asked his father to drop him off at the side of the highway near Rockfish Gap, Virginia, where he literally hits the trail, bound for its northern terminus at Katahdin mountain in Maine. At the end of his second day out, he stops for the night at a shelter in Shenandoah National Park, where he meets other hikers with whom he will share the long trip north: Creature Man (that's his trail name), a caustic but likable loner with secrets that are really tough to uncover; Kevin, a Vietnam veteran who is making his second attempt to complete the entire Trail; Rock-Stabber, an ex-Marine with unlimited stamina but very limited social skills; and Juice-Box, an attractive young woman who is (unusually) hiking alone. As the play progresses, covering three months and a couple thousand miles in about a 2-1/2 hour running time, we learn a bit about the baggage each of these hikers carries with them along with their gear. But Lengel's focus is unwaveringly about what happens to Adam, and how this remarkable experience transforms him.
There are any number of singular things to notice about North to Maine. It's about hiking, but Lengel wisely doesn't spend much time at all showing us any; he leaves the gorgeous scenery for the movies and lets us imagine it in our mind's eye and instead takes us into the hearts and souls of his characters. (There's lots of ambient detail, though, as the characters teach each other and the audience numerous tips and techniques about how best to survive in the wilderness.)
More significantly, there are no traditional heroes or villains in this play: these people are not doing battle or even trying to master nature but rather simply become at one with it, and they are likewise never antagonists to each other, except in the heat of random particular moments; they must finally only collaborate to climb these mountains and reach the end of their journey. Their only true battles are within themselves.
There's some beautiful writing here, much of it assigned to Kevin, the most experienced and therefore wisest of the hikers we meet; I particularly recall his memories of his service in Vietnam and its tumultuous aftermath when he joined a veterans' anti-war group, and a later speech in which he describes what he's expecting to find when he finally reaches the summit of Katahdin. All five characters are rich, highly individual creations, though, and they're brought vividly to life by the actors: Tim Dowd as Adam (a brave and compelling performance of a nearly nonstop role—he's almost never offstage), David Sitler as Kevin, Adam LaFaci as Creature Man, Joie Bauer as Rock-Stabber, and Michelle Concha as Juice-Box. All bring energy, insight, and deep humanity to their work here, and under Parness's direction they create as seamless and satisfying an ensemble as any you're likely to see on stage right now.
Kudos, too, to scenic designer Aaron Ethan Green, who uses just a few set pieces in almost story theater style to evoke the play's various majestic settings. Nick Simone's sound and Cindy Shumsey's lighting contribute greatly to the world of the play as well.
North to Maine was finally, for me, a thrilling, exhilarating, and highly moving theatrical experience. Though it's specifically about a young man who sets out to meet a particular and extreme challenge, it's really a celebration of the extraordinary potential within each of us, to find some seemingly quixotic goal and see it through, and then discover what we've made of our world and ourselves when we're done. It's a journey well worth the taking.