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REVIEW: ‘Thoreau,’ at the Unicorn: A revelatory performance by David Adkins

To hear Thoreau's words spoken by David Adkins is revelatory. Adkins is never preachy, always real and confrontational, never violent even with an axe in his hands. His final speech about a vagrant water-lily is as touching a moment as any I've seen on a stage in many years.

Thoreau or, Return to Walden

By David Adkins

Directed by Eric Hill

“As they could not reach ME, they decided to confine my body.”

In David Adkins new play “Thoreau or, Return to Walden” Henry David Thoreau, as played by David Adkins, wakes up in the morning to confront a rooster. He is alone in the woods near Walden Pond several years after leaving his hut there; he is nude in the early morning light and air and he is unashamed — at least for a moment. For it seems that a modern-day audience has been transported to the water’s edge and we all stand there gazing at his nakedness, listening to him crow awkwardly at the distant bird. Once he acknowledges us he has to get dressed and he does this for an hour and ten minutes as he harangues us with opinion, political reverie and poignant reminiscence about his life up to this point, his anarchism and his political correctness, his belief in mankind’s place in the natural order, his understanding of John Brown, the abolitionist who is scheduled to die for his own beliefs in the equality of all men.

That, in a nutshell, is the new one-man play about Thoreau. In his awkward eloquence there is hidden a man who cannot come to grips with some of the realities that surround him. That he is on the brink of severe dementia seems obvious. What also cannot be denied is his personal genius for grasping the needs of mankind in situations which are anything but natural. Set in either 1859 or 1860 when John Brown was awaiting execution, the story here brings the author back to the site of his home for two years (1845-46) on Walden Pond. Much has changed for him in that time and much has changed for Walden woods as well. In 1844 Thoreau had set fire to about 400 acres of the woods and then, on 14 acres owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, he had taken up his solo residency there, a way of paying back a debt he owed to nature and the land’s natural resources.


Adkins as Thoreau. Photo: Michael J. Riha
Adkins as Thoreau. Photo: Michael J. Riha

Adkins play does not give the early period of his time in the woods on the pond much justice. Instead, he concentrates on one of the political ironies of the period, the returning of slaves to their masters in the courtrooms of Massachusetts, the state where freedom for slaves had become a law and a way of life. His naturalist, naked or clothed, is a man troubled by the events of his time, a growing separation that would erupt in a year or two into total war on this continent. A friend of Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller and other authors, his career coincided with that of Herman Melville, another troubled author.

To hear Thoreau’s words spoken by David Adkins is revelatory. Not only does the actor give to aphorisms a tonal reality, he almost makes the words sing their meaning into the ear. For an oddball in real life, Thoreau has been an inspiration to many, including Martin Luther King, Jr. who found much inspiration in the non-violent anarchy of Thoreau’s brand of transcendentalism. Adkins is never preachy, always real and confrontational, never violent even with an axe in his hands. His final speech about a vagrant water-lily is as touching a moment as any I’ve seen on a stage in many years.

It is the unique combination of the very human and the highly theatrical about this play that makes it so worthwhile. Adkins as writer and actor exposes Thoreau to the varying lights of daytime in the woods, a metaphor here for the illumination of centuries on the theoretical lifestyle of this quixotic writer. “On Civil Disobediance” set HDT on a course that he would try to follow for the rest of his days (he died relatively young in 1862 at age 44 due to complicationis with his tuberculosis acquired in 1835). His work was largely unread until the 1890s but he has influenced many generations with his then and later radical thinking about many aspects of life and the way we live it.

It is never easy for a single actor to sustain a solo performance and in Adkins case he has to speak an arcane version of American English while ranting and raving and generally upsetting himself more than he does us. He challenges himself with words, Thoreau’s words most of the time, and he meets the challenge with remarkable clarity. Clarity is not easy in this play. Adkins script only gives him the occasional opportunity to be exact and clear. Most of the time there is a jumble of ideas playing on the small Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge, MA campus. Thoreau’s words collide with one another and the actor does his best to make peace with that and keep the character of Thoreau real and vivid and alive for us. It is his own play and he is still disccovering what works and what doesn’t. The play you see next week will undoubtedly be a bit different than the one I saw last night. It does not serve anyone, therefore, for me to expound too much on any single moment of the play.

Director Eric Hill has a good way of dealing with the confrontational aspects of Adkins’ play and he follows his instincts well here – he lets the character confront his silent accusers, us, the audience. Without giving us a single line or action he predicts our reactions to what Thoreau is saying and he lets the actor breathe and move and lunge and parry based on how we are expected to feel and react. This is a risky choice but it seemed to work wonderfully opening night. Adkins performance never seemed to sound a false note.

Michael J. Riha is responsible for the fine set which combines a literary sensibility with a natural environment. David Murin’s single costume (we cannot really count a hat on a nude man) takes the entire play to assemble on Adkins body and it is wonderful from the get-go. Matthew E. Adelson’s dramatic and highly theatrical lighting flies in the face of all the connection to nature that is going on in this play and its production and yet it never seemed over-the-top or misguided. In fact if anything other than the performance spoke to the eventual fallen mental state of Thoreau it was the lighting and how it affected everything. J. Hagenbuckle, designing the sound for this play, has been challenged to create the natural setting and the emotional memories and he’s done an excellent job.

As someone who finds one-person shows difficult to bear (I’ve written about this a lot lately) this one has the feeling of a two-person show, more then most. I was never bored, never found the play difficult to follow, never needed to break my attention away from the stage and its occupant. I am more a fan of David Adkins than I am of Henry David Thoreau – that said I never found the actor David Adkins on the Unicorn stage, only the 19th century anarchist he was playing. That’s enough to make me want to see the show again. I really admire the finer art of acting the character, not playing one. This production gives more of that than most have done in the past. This is an achievement not to be missed.


Thoreau or, Return to Walden plays at the Unicorn Theater on the Berkshire Theatre Group campus located at 6 East Street, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 11. For information and tickets, consult the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at


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