Staging a play about a convicted child molester could be considered a big gamble for any theater, particularly a small one like Theatre Pro Rata. In the case of "The Woodsman," thanks to Erik Hoover's precise direction and a smart, spare performance by Adam Whisner as flawed leading man Walter, it's one that pays off.
Recently paroled after serving several years in prison for molesting a young girl, Walter is living in a barely furnished apartment — with a window overlooking a schoolyard — working in a warehouse, and trying to repair his psyche. His brother-in-law Carlos (affable James Rodriguez) is the only family member who will speak to him. His sincere, amusingly annoying therapist Rosen (Ben Tallen) wants to help, but reveals smug limitations of his own.
Whisner plays Walter with ingenious ambiguity, making us want to root for him one minute and distrust him the next. We gradually stop obsessing about finding out what made him, you know, "that way," as he focuses on how to move forward. Assisting him on that journey is co-worker Nikki (infectiously fearless Katherine Kupiecki), with whom he apprehensively begins an affair.
Meanwhile, a sinister subplot plays out via shadow puppets against white backdrops starkly adorned with playground symbols — a basketball hoop and tether ball. A man Walter soon recognizes as a molester chooses a victim and offers him candy, gradually drawing him closer. As Walter wrestles with what he sees transpiring across the street, he also meets an 11-year-old girl named Robin, a bird-watcher, in the woods. Their conversation is at first squirm-inducing, but becomes much more emotionally complicated.
The gritty Nimbus Theatre on an industrial stretch of Central Avenue NE. is an apt venue for the show. Set designer Derek Lee Miller's shadow puppets, hollow-eyed and almost life-sized, brilliantly depict both the menace of the playground predator candy-man and the helpless need of his victim. Sound designer Matthew Vichlach's deft undercurrent of ambient noise makes us feel Walter's near-constant tension and shame.
In his director's statement in the program, Hoover writes of theater's ability to further our understanding of sexual predators "by allowing us to slip into the monster's skin with a degree of safety." Whisner's portrayal of Walter accomplishes just that — not directly begging for redemption or forgiveness, just reminding us that there's nothing so bravely vulnerable, so emotionally raw, as no-holds-barred live performance. And that sometimes, the experience of stepping into some damaged soul's shoes for a while is more satisfying than being spoon-fed all the answers.