Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington DC
Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington DC

Two couples, one black, one white, flee their suburban pressures and re-connect with nature
by going camping in Cherokee, North Carolina. But their lives are upended when a member
of the group mysteriously vanishes, and the others are visited by a charismatic local who just might help them live off the grid forever…
Lisa D’Amour’s latest comedy—a companion piece to last season’s hit, Detroit—pushes a group of middle class characters to their emotional limits. Who has an “authentic” relationship to the land? Can we escape the trappings of comfort and technology to forge a healthier civilization?

Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington DC

The Washington Post

Fading into the woods with D’Amour’s mysterious ‘Cherokee’

Review By Nelson Pressley, Washington Post, 2/16/15

Civilization crumbled to bits in Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” the Pulitzer finalist about two struggling couples. Suburban routine gave way to alarmingly primitive impulses that Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company played last season with howl-at-the-sky abandon.
“Detroit’s” back-to-nature companion piece “Cherokee” upends things more pensively, even perplexingly. Again, we track two couples losing their fundamental connections to society. This time it’s a comfortable foursome from Houston getting away from it all on Native American land in North Carolina, grinning middle-class people overdressed for “roughing it” in high-end gear from REI.

Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Washington DCBut where “Detroit” blew up with a force you couldn’t ignore, the mysterious “Cherokee” is an understated invitation you can take or leave. The conundrum that D’Amour cooks up is tantalizing, and it’s staged with woodsy serenity at Woolly by “Detroit” director John Vreeke. But the coolly written play is so coy that key details seem to evaporate before you can take them in.

Then again, disappearance is what it’s all about. The Houston foursome is white couple John (Paul Morella) and Janine (Jennifer Mendenhall), and black couple Mike (Thomas W. Jones II) and Traci (Erica Chamblee).
John is a tightly wound oil exec. Mike is his longtime buddy. John and Janine have children; the children stayed home. Mike and Traci are trying to conceive; amusingly, we hear them at it in the tent.

And then Mike, the one most unnerved by every chirp and snapped twig in the woods, vanishes. The search is on, kind of, and if you want to nitpick with the script, the group’s lack of urgency over this missing person is one place you could start. Helping, sort of, is Josh (Jason Grasl), a member of the Cherokee tribe that runs the big local casino and that offers outdoor performances of a historical drama. (“Unto These Hills” is the show staged during the warm months in the real Cherokee, N.C., where there’s also a Harrah’s casino.)
The easygoing production attractively seduces you toward a wilderness state of mind. Daniel Ettinger’s set features stylized woods that soar to the highest reaches of Woolly’s ample stage, with shadowy nighttime lighting by Colin K. Bills and outdoorsy sound from Palmer Hefferan. The acting in this environment is appropriately wide-eyed and mystical as nature infects these suburbanites with such rapture that they seriously talk about never going back.
Morella and Mendenhall nicely capture the intoxication of a chuck-it-all freedom (an idea that was chug-a-lugged in “Detroit”) as John and Janine reconnect with what they think are their purer selves. The other characters are more complicated, and the performances are necessarily slippery. Chamblee remains a kindly blank slate as Traci, who isn’t as traumatized by the calamity of Mike’s disappearance as we might expect. Jones’s normal-guy Mike and Grasl’s sage Josh are also deliberately blurry, though for different reasons — and it would spoil the twists in the plot to say why.

Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Washington DC

It isn’t giving away too much to reveal the hot-button issue pushed by D’Amour’s first act cliffhanger. It’s identity, with these varied characters wrestling with all kinds of history — personal, cultural, national. Setting the play in a place like Cherokee, a tourist trap built on the 19th-century Trail of Tears, coaxes you to try to connect these dots, especially as “code switching,” or toggling between linguistic styles, steps forward as a theme.
“Reality is not a fixed state,” one character insists as the increasingly peculiar group argues whether they can live together in this potential utopia, and as they bicker about who has been true or false to whom.
Substantial as the themes are, they’re generating an oddly light puzzle of a play. D’Amour was better known as an experimentalist before “Detroit” brought her mainstream acclaim, and “Cherokee” is in a quirkier key. The drama murmurs provocative questions but spins away from clear answers in its nowhere world.
The Woolly production features what looks like live action projections of the characters in the mountains and in the food halls, and their bodies slowly fade and dissolve on the screen. At first the video seems like a distraction, but it turns out to be awfully close to the heart of the play. There’s a revolution going on; it’s just low-key and naggingly enigmatic — like the faces on the screen, a little too easily wiped away.

Review By Nelson Pressley, Washington Post, 2/16/15

Theatre Bloom

"For anyone willing to make the investment, Cherokee is guaranteed to give back tenfold or more. Unpack your assumptions and see this show"

Review by Betsy Marks Delaney, Theatre Bloom, 2/15/15

We sometimes think we visit our souls when we enter a museum, take a stroll on a beach, or walk through a forest. We search for a key to connecting with our roots or with reality when we take that drive-by study of unfamiliar culture or lifestyle. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company‘s new world premiere work, Cherokee by Obie Award-Winning playwright Lisa D’Amour, directed by John Vreeke, seeks to expose the subtext beneath those superficial whims that drive us to seek that connection.

From the official description of the play: “Two couples—one black, one white—flee their suburban pressures and try to connect with nature by going camping in Cherokee, North Carolina. But their vacation is upended when one member of the group mysteriously vanishes and the others are visited by a Native American local…who unearths buried desires that might change their lives forever. Cherokee is about a disparate group of Americans grappling with vital questions: What does it mean to lead an authentic life? What are we willing to give up to have our lives transformed?”
Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Washington DC Cherokee begins without ceremony or warning, house lights still lit. This meta-theatre entrance to a wickedly astute study of expectations and the unknown core plunges us into the dark, and then into the world of John (Paul Morella), bored oil industry businessman, his 3rd grade teacher wife Janine (Jennifer Mendenhall), whose manic enthusiasm is peculiarly reserved for mentors of the very young, Mike (Thomas W. Jones), so terribly out of place in the forest you think he might just explode when the next gnat lands on him, and his young, enthusiastic wife Traci (Erica Chamblee) so focused on becoming the mother of Mike’s child, she nearly loses herself.
 And then there’s us: The audience, voyeurs on this quartet’s journey to reconnect with the primeval forces of nature. We are essential to the story, because this is as much an exploration of our own expectations as it is a journey for the characters on stage.
 At the core of every piece of drama is the caricature – the nugget of truth as the actors see it – and how we as audience are expected to relate to and interpret that truth. Vreeke takes our hands, coaxing us into this world with initial wonder and enthusiasm, until we find ourselves down in that rabbit hole with the characters, where our own preconceived notions lead us to believe we understand the roles being played, until it becomes clear we have no idea what’s next.
 As audience members we acknowledge the actors and recognize their roles. We relate to the stereotypes at some level of expectation, because we are told that this is who these people are. In many ways we all operate in the same space as these characters. We all portray at any given time the roles of teacher, wife, father, daughter, student, friend, lover, spirit guide, employee, boss. Those are expectations. Preconceived notions we show to the world when we operate within its rules, so that we can survive for another day doing what we think we need to do to survive.

But what does it take to survive in an increasingly complex world that so often robs us of our self in every sense? Into this maelstrom of “normal” we come to know Josh (Jason Grasl) a mystical figure who finds his way to the campsite in the Great Smoky Mountains outside Cherokee, NC, not far from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. Josh’s appearance is the catalyst for a journey that carries these characters far, far outside their comfort zones of high end camping gear and expensive designer shoes and into the forest of emotions as they try to make sense of their world and discover themselves increasingly untethered and adrift.

Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Washington DC Daniel Ettinger’s deceptively simple fluid forest of wooden pillars and moving platforms combine with Colin K. Bills’ nimble lighting design to frame the space with shafts of leaf-filtered sunlight or moonlight interspersed with the artificial entertainment environment of locations within the casino and elsewhere in Cherokee, give us context. Aaron Fisher’s projections – a nod to ever-present documentary videos that bring us all closer to the Museum Experience – place the characters into the documentary in an almost-overdone conceit that reminds us each time how intrusive technology can become.
 Even the lobby has that museum riff going, with a short Facebook app-driven quiz that brings YOU closer to the true camping experience. (I scored “Day Tripper” in my version of the quiz – A fair cop if ever there was one for my method of travel into camping and forest exploration.) It is this extra step, for the willing participant, which helps launch the audience member into the role of willing observer and witness.

 If ever a work managed to strip away preconceived notions of self, this is it. In her preface to the play, “Old Mountains”, Tiya Miles says “Cherokee subtly plays with notions of primal knowledge, cultural expectation, trickster figures, and racial stereotypes and suggests that bonds of affinity can be forged across these lines of difference.”
 No matter where the five characters begin in this story, they all end somewhere radically different. It’s not so much magic as there is a rending, like the release of a knotted muscle under the skin that allows you to relax and then overextend just as our assumptions about reality and our place in it are torn away, stripped bare and exposed, underneath clear skies, burning embers and the enhanced beat of drums that take advantage of our senses in ways we only think we know. Five minutes into the second half of the play, we find that everything we know is wrong, and that everything simply…is.
 For anyone willing to make the investment, Cherokee is guaranteed to give back tenfold or more. Unpack your assumptions and see this show

Review by Betsy Marks Delaney, Theatre Bloom, 2/15/15

MD Theatre Guide

"Director John Vreeke has taken a script that has fascinating potential and nourished the surreal aspect of this mind-expanding getaway"

Review by Brian Bochicchio, MD Theatre Guide
, 2/17/15

What is it about this verging-on-stereotype artistic inspiration that by placing most of our belongings in an SUV and visiting that thing called nature we will plumb new depths, understand our inner selves?
Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Washington DCWe again pack our propane and bug spray, but with some decidedly new twists, in Woolly Mammoth’s lead production of 2015, playwright Lisa D’Amour’s Cherokee.
D’Amour, an Obie award winner, has had her work performed nationally, and was seen here at Woolly Mammoth in 2014 in her work Detroit, featuring a set of couples dealing with suburbia.  She has exhibited a talent for exploring and exploding common situations, and this time places her characters far more outside of their element.

That setting is the Nantahala National Forest in Western North Carolina, a land of rugged vistas, wild rivers and a nearby Cherokee reservation. Reviewer’s intermission: I visited this area just last summer and it is a great getaway in addition to being close enough to civilization to be kinda camping.
Introduced by the eerie wailing chants from a series of native American songs, we meet 2 married couples; John and Janine (Paul Morella and Jennifer Mendenhall) and their friends Mike and Traci (Thomas W. Jones Jr. and Erica Chamblee). They amble onto a forest-like set nicely backlit as if a surrounded by a tree canopy, courtesy of set designer Daniel Ettinger and rest of the production staff.
Talking about kids and old times and taking mountain selfies (kitschy but cool with an interactive screen mirroring the action) they are the quintessential peeps on vacation. An underlying current of discontent emerges as John, Janine explains, just needs to get away from the stress, and he unexpectedly intones ‘I want something bad to happen.’ Into the mix is Josh, (Jason Grasl) a local Indian youth working at the casino who happens to drop by. Grasl is not who he appears and stays appropriately mysterious; his presence is intended to bring enlightenment, embodying the Indian Trickster role.

Cherokee - Directed by John Vreeke - Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Washington DCTheir nature excursion takes a seismic shift as Mike walks off from the campsite and disappears. This starts a chain of events that are tough to wrap your head around—John and Janine decide to stay in the woods indefinitely, and ask the others to join them. Josh and Traci form a bond, and then the big elephant–the emergence of Mike again, under another identity. Without the work of this gifted cast, this would be a cobbled together question mark.
Director John Vreeke has taken a script that has fascinating potential and nourished the surreal aspect of this mind-expanding getaway. Local fixture Morella as the earnest everyman is solid and exudes visual pain in trying to figure out all that is happening.  Stage wife Mendenhall plays to her supportive nurturing part and breaks out wonderfully as a bloody good hunter later in the show. Chamblee and Jones have good newlywed awkwardness and in his transformation, Jones was a revelation as a freed soul in a new life.
Woolly Mammoth has provided us with a fascinating suburban offramp–an immersion into the great outdoors without being hokey about it. There is some suspension of belief involved as our conventions are exploded in Cherokee. And just like a random walk in the woods, each scene comes upon us as a separate vignette. Billed as a comedy, it is much more a situational drama that rises to another level courtesy of fine stage work. Take a woolly walk in the woods. But bring your flashlight. You may have to find your way back.

Review by Brian Bochicchio, MD Theatre Guide, 2/17/15