by Heather Lee Rogers · April 24, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #82 Heather Lee Rogers looks at The Woodsman Following in the footsteps of Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive ) Steven Fechter crafts his play, The Woodsman, around a complex, sympathetic character who is a pedophile. We first meet Walter in one of his parole-mandated therapy sessions after twelve years in prison. Walter was once a professional wood craftsman with a supportive family about to open his own shop. He now lives estranged from all but one of his relatives while working in a factory and living in a cheap apartment near a middle school. He is hostile and distrustful towards his therapist, Rosen. He is wary about getting involved with a brazen, attractive woman he works with named Nikki. He suffers real visits from a detective who is determined to pull him back to jail and imaginary visits from a young girl he may have molested in the past.
While the character of Walter (played with beautifully nuanced stoicism by Stewart Walker) is painted as guarded and abrasive, the play still wants us to believe that he is a man suffering from an addiction that he is trying to eradicate. This addiction is an uncontrollable sexual attraction to pre-pubescent girls. The play seems to be saying that this is a mental illness, and needs medical/psychological attention more than criminal punishment or the castigation of society. The trouble is that no one in this play (or maybe even no one at all) knows how to cure it. As much as Walter fights his nature and demands help to be made “normal”, we see him weaken and tempted to slip. And it is hard to be sympathetic to the illness when “slipping” would involve the straight up, pre-planned intellectual and emotional manipulation of a child.
So as dramatic material goes, the subject is very rich. It is great to be on a protagonist’s side one minute and appalled by him the next. It is engaging to watch that inner struggle played out on stage and wait to see which side he ends up on.
But like all challenging plays, it poses more questions than answers. The supporting characters seem to represent the differing societal opinions about what to do with these cases.
His brother-in-law Carlos believes Walter is a good man who did some bad things, but now he’s paid for it with twelve years of his life and deserves the chance to move on. But he doesn’t understand that Walter is still struggling with his remorse and addiction. Carlos is always pushing photos of his daughter on him like family members do, while Walter nervously acknowledges that he isn’t ready for that yet.
The therapist, Rosen, wants to help his client find the motivation for his behavior and urges him to keep a journal to practice self-reflection. This is all well and good, but I also got the sense (and I think the character of Walter would agree with me) that this guy really has no idea what he is doing. He doesn’t know how create a safe counseling environment for someone who’s been in jail for 12 years. He doesn’t know how to prevent this man from falling back into committing some very real crimes which will at the least cause devastating emotional damage and could in the worst case scenario cause violent physical harm to a child.
Nikki, the co-worker from his factory, is attracted to his mysterious “dark secret”. She struts and brags that she’s not easily shocked and has survived some dark things herself. At times she makes light of it the way Hollywood makes sexy TV shows about serial killers. She hates things she’s done in her own life too. She perceives that they are both outcasts and makes it her mission to help him and keep him.
On the other end of the scale is Lucas: the obnoxious detective who has seen more horrible violence done on children than we are led to believe Walter would ever be capable of. He lumps all pedophiles together (the guilt-riddled fondlers with the sadistic dismemberers alike) and believes that they should all be locked up indefinitely for society’s protection. He tells Walter about the woodsman who saved Red Riding Hood from the belly of the wolf. He tells him there are no real woodsmen.
Then there’s the smart, pretty, eleven-year-old girl Walter notices who watches birds in the park and everything she represents.
So if you see this show, it is up to you to decide. Can a man with a dangerous illness ever defeat his demons or be forgiven after doing his time? At what point should society give him that chance even if it puts children in potential danger? The Woodsman reminds us that we are always living in negotiation with the conflict between safety and freedom.