David Ingram, Marcia Saunders, Ashley Everage and Kevin Jackson go camping in "Cherokee." Credit: Alexander Iziliaev
In Lisa D’Amour’s last play, the Obie Award winning “Detroit,” two female characters yearn for a camping trip, but only manage to drive eight miles from home before their plans unravel and they find themselves back in the suburbs. So in her follow-up, D’Amour says, “I really wanted to write a play where the people actually got to go camping.”
The result is “Cherokee,” which will have its world premiere this month at the Wilma Theater. The play is a companion piece to “Detroit” in that it also deals with two couples, but takes its characters out of their element and into the Great Smoky Mountains. “The fact that these four characters have driven far from suburban Houston is very important to the play,” D’Amour says. “It’s almost as though getting out of the concrete interstate world of the suburbs and into the fresh air and dirt and hills of nature allows them to listen to themselves more clearly and allows their intuition to kick in.”
The play, directed by Barrymore Award winner Anne Kauffman, follows the campers as one of their party goes missing and a mysterious half-Cherokee drops into their campground. The encounter was inspired by D’Amour’s childhood camping vacations to Cherokee, N.C. There, she would watch the long-running outdoor historical drama “Unto These Hills,” which for more than 60 years has recounted the story of the Cherokee’s forced removal to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
“It was one of my formative theater experiences growing up,” D’Amour recalls. She returned to the area for the first time as an adult during the writing of “Cherokee,” and visited the 2,800-seat Mountainside Theatre again. “I totally got the chills walking into the theater because it was such a big part of my childhood.”
The area has changed in the intervening years, with an enormous casino now standing alongside the nature trails and historical reenactment village where visitors can learn about Cherokee traditions. “It’s really disorienting in interesting ways to move back and forth between those worlds, and the play deals with that,” D’Amour says. The native character in the play feels like he has one foot in a contemporary Western world and one foot in a world steeped in Native American tradition and ritual, and he’s trying to find his own place at some intersection of those.”
A sense of place As half of the performance duo PearlDamour, the playwright has created a number of site-specific works (the pair is currently working on a commission from Longwood Gardens). D'Amour says that background has an impact on a play like “Cherokee,” which deals strongly with a sense of place.
“In many of my plays the landscape is really a character," she says. "If I’m stuck in a scene I try to just look around the setting, almost like walking around in my mind to see what might happen next or what might change.”
'Cherokee' Jan. 8-Feb. 8, opening night Jan. 15 Wilma Theater 265 S. Broad St. $35-$66 215-546-7824 www.wilmatheater.org