Voices From Heart of the Woods

Play evenhandedly portrays 'jobs vs. environment' conflict in the Northwest

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

He's an unemployed logger, a priest visiting an old-growth clear-cut, a professor theorizing about land use, an environmental lobbyist, and a saw shop owner, just to name a few of his characters. In his one-man show "In the Heart of the Wood," Todd Jefferson Moore explores diverse viewpoints on logging in the Northwest, weaving together the voices of 19 real people from Washington and British Columbia.

A powerful performer without pretense, he rapidly switches from one character to the next with minimal reliance on props. Moore - who has acted at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Portland Repertory Theatre, and the Seattle Children's Theater - brings a wealth of accumulated perspective to the "jobs versus environment" conflict.

"Some of the greatest storytellers I've ever met have been loggers," explains Moore, noting that they never tend to exaggerate. "That's the problem," he laughs, as he recounts a story about a man getting crushed by a tree, then accidentally dumped out of a stretcher by his fellow loggers. Moore incorporates the dark humor of these stories into the show.

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As a playwright, Moore has a talent for finding humor in adversity and quickly getting to the core of his characters. He conducted more than 40 interviews in politically charged areas like Forks County, Wash., and Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia.

Then he spent two months just narrowing down his material, often distilling three hours of a taped interview into a five-minute monologue.

In one of his more serious pieces, an Anglican priest, Father Graeme, recounts the visceral reaction he had to the logging of old-growth trees on Vancouver Island. The awe-inspiring size of the trees, the plants, and even the eight-inch slugs propel him to protest, leading to his eventual arrest.

As a pair of twenty-something protesters, Moore breaks into naive "peace and love" lingo yet also manages an eloquent defense of trees. In a delightful mockery of academia, he plays a sociology professor whose lofty monologue on private versus public land seems to float in theoretical space. Perhaps the most gripping of his characterizations are the loggers who are suddenly unemployed.

Director John Kazanjian keeps "In the Heart of the Wood" moving at a fast clip, sometimes with Moore enacting lively duets between two characters. The sharp, cinematic segues from character to character are sometimes startling, always powerful.

Another asset to the show is Moore's attention to details - like slugs and grapes - that add rich texture to everything he says.

As Mike, an ex-logger, he holds up a grape and discusses the difficulties of his job-training program. One notorious assignment is to go to a market, purchase a single grape, and have it weighed. The point is to challenge ex-loggers with a socially embarrassing situation, part of an aggressive program to overcome social and academic fears. Consequently, only a brave few of the retrainees succeed. Many ex-loggers see the familiar grape exercise as a glaring symbol of the nation's inadequate efforts to provide for them.

As Moore explains, for a logger to go back to school and learn a new trade is no small feat, especially if he or she has only a third-grade level of education. Much of the show's material comes from the timber-dependent Grays Harbor Count in Washington, where an estimated 33 percent of the work force is unemployed.

Moore achieves an overall balance with half of his characters planted firmly in the environmentalist camp and half in the logging camp. Since he began his research, Moore says the environmental pendulum has shifted. In 1993, many of the activists he talked to felt secure in their efforts to stop timber sales and pass environmental laws. Yet in today's political climate of salvage logging, the environmentalists are struggling to hold their legal ground.

In researching timber issues, Moore talked to just about everyone except corporate executives. "If there is one, the message is the plight of the little guy," Moore says. The play showcases everyday people - people with regional dialects, idiosyncrasies, bad tempers.

"In the Heart of the Wood" has traveled to a number of small towns in the Northwest in its first two years of touring. It began in a refurbished mortuary in Seattle, enjoyed a three-week run at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and continues to travel, by request, to various Northwest logging communities. Moore notes that the rural audiences tend to appreciate different jokes from urban audiences.

After the show I saw in La Grande, a small town in eastern Oregon, a number of loggers befriended Moore and invited him to go elk-watching the next morning. Thanks to Moore's inviting approach to confrontational issues, his performance attracts both loggers and environmentalists.

Dissatisfied with the theater scene in Seattle, where he's lived for the past 20 years, Moore found his acting parts were occasionally well-paid but never fulfilling.

"This is the first thing I've ever done where people have wanted to see it," says Moore. His unusually humble approach to acting seems to aid him in the difficult task of becoming a human transparency, projecting the views of 19 different people. Whether he's reeling in anti-environmentalist rhetoric as Ron, the Wise Use lobbyist, or gently calling to the spotted owl as Christy, the zoologist, he's consistently impassioned.

Part of his inspiration for the show came from a college dream to move to a small town and start a community theater. Instead of the usual "Guys and Dolls" and "Oklahoma" offerings, "it would be a theater that would reflect its community," Moore explains.

It was not until he saw Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show "Fires in the Mirror" that he had a vision for his own show. And it was not until he drove past a clear-cut on Interstate 5 that he arrived at his subject.

Moore's next one-man show will explore capital punishment. He's just begun interviewing death-row inmates in Walla Walla, Wash. Yet even as he researches his next show, he continues to tour "In the Heart of the Wood," in small Washington and Oregon towns. In the tradition of bringing political theater into the streets, Moore brings his unparalleled look at the timber crisis - into the woods.

*For information on performances, call (206) 760-1527.

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