‘Wilderness’ brings mental illness, personal stories center stage this weekend

Media Credit: Courtesy of Baranova Photography

Actor Riley Suter, who plays the character Cole, stands center stage as a Skype interview with the real parents of Suter's character plays behind him.

A short run play that delves into real life stories of teens around the country to show how mental illness plagues the nation opened at the Kennedy Center Thursday.

“Wilderness” follows six teens from across the country as they grapple with their various mental illnesses at a wilderness retreat for mentally disturbed teenagers and young adults. On the Kennedy Center stage until Sunday, a whirlwind of media is pulled together from Skype interviews to choreographed dance numbers, to tell the characters’ stories in a vivid and unique way.

The show is set at an outdoor program in the Utah desert. In the rehab program, the characters go through group therapy sessions and try to discover the roots of their illnesses. For some of the six characters, who are based on real people, these roots lead to reliving repressed traumatic events from their childhoods. For example, a character named Elizabeth, played by actor Caitlin Goldie, reveals that her parents’ messy divorce and her mom’s bipolar disorder led her to enroll in the program.

Other characters’ lack of trauma or particular cause to their stress in general highlights just how confusing mental illness is to navigate, especially at such a young age. Another character named Cole, played by actor Riley Suter, has never remembered feeling truly happy despite his stable home life, which makes his descent into addiction and depression even scarier for him and the audience.

The play was directed by Seth Bockley and written by Bockley and Anne Hamburger. Bockley and Hamburger hail from the En Garde Arts collective in New York, where the show premiered last fall to receive Critic’s Pick from the New York Times.

One in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness and stories from the real families affected take center stage in the show. Weaved into the storyline is documentary footage and real Skype interviews with the families of the teenagers whom the characters are based on.

The playwrights were not afraid to tackle controversial issues affecting young people and their mental health head on. One character, Dylan, who is a transgender man played by actor Luke Zimmerman, struggles to come out to his parents, despite their acceptance.

Another character, Chloe, played by actor Holly DeMorro, explains that she felt pressured to have sex too early in life when a rumor spread around her school that she was a lesbian. Teenage sex and the way teens interact regarding sex and sexual identity is often not talked about in such blunt and negative terms, so seeing realistic, sobering dialogue about it was a breath of fresh air.

Each adolescent tells a different and fascinating story, but the most curious character in “Wilderness” is played by actor Jan Leslie Harding and simply called Mom. She plays a stand in for all parents in the story. She conducts the Skype interviews with the character’s corresponding real life families. She is often seen standing on the side of stage, dramatically worrying about minor issues and serves as some much needed comic relief in between pressing, serious issues.

Wilderness is playing at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater at 2700 F St. NW this weekend. Showtimes are Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.,= and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $29.

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