New play ‘The Big Heartless’ explores ‘fear of something wild’

February 15, 2019

Dale Dunn was driving into Santa Fe from Ojo Caliente when she saw something odd on the road ahead of her: Two wolves were running in her lane toward her car.

In the next breath, they had run past. “I’d never seen anything like it,” Dunn said.

Not long after, Dunn took a road trip in Montana. She came upon an abandoned reform school, complete with barbed-wire fences and an obstacle course that she said gave her “the creeps.”

Both encounters intrigued Dunn. So she did some research, discovering that the animals she had seen on the road were Mexican gray wolves, and there were certain organizations that had operated borderline abusive reform schools all over the United States — including one in Montana.

“I became very interested in the plight of the wolf,” Dunn said.

One spirit-animal meaning of the wolf is the need to “find one’s pack,” a sentiment that Dunn found deeply relatable at the time. She began researching wolf reintroduction programs in Montana, where she owns a cabin, and soon the story of the wolves and the story of the locked-up teenagers began braiding together in her imagination.

The result is the play The Big Heartless, which opens this weekend and runs through March 3 at Warehouse 21, 1614 Paseo de Peralta.

“The stories began melding together and it became about the way that fear — the fear of the other, the unknown, the fear of something wild — makes us lock up or kill,” Dunn said. “And people see teenagers like that a lot. They get scared and they lock them up.”

The story follows Mac, a middle-aged recluse who works with a wolf reintroduction program in the wilds of Montana. His neighbors are the young and lonely Jean and her aging grandparents. When Mac’s teenage nephew, Cliff, and his free-spirited friend Monsoon turn up on Mac’s doorstep on the run from a tough-love reform school, all of them come face to face with the fear, confusion and frustration that accompany desperate longing for freedom and acceptance.

Dunn, who grew up in Los Alamos and holds a master’s degree in playwriting from Columbia College of the Arts, has been working on The Big Heartless, her fourth full-length play, for about four years. She also has written 10 short plays. “A lot of my plays are written in an effort to expose things that may not otherwise be exposed, to give other people a chance to experience things that may help them move through feelings that they may need and otherwise not get the chance to,” Dunn said.

Dunn is producing the play with her company, Just Say It Theater, and the production is directed by her colleague Lynn Goodwinn.

Goodwinn, who has worked as a performance educator, actress and director in Santa Fe for several years, said she is excited to work on the play “because of how it speaks to our universal need to take care of each other and the planet.”

“In this play, the characters are searching for home, or a safe place to be, and one of the discoveries we need to make is that this is our home,” Goodwinn said. “It’s the only one we have and we need to take care of it. There’s a need to learn to nurture, not only our own individuality but also each other.”

Goodwinn has taken her role as “nurturer” to the actors seriously, especially when it comes to the teenagers in the production.

“For me, directing is helping actors get to the essence of a character, and there are many dimensions to a character, but when it comes down to it, a lot of our needs are to be accepted, to be loved, to be taken care of,” Goodwinn said.

That longing is shared by many teens, and multidimensional teen characters can be hard to come by, which is one reason the students who are working on The Big Heartless are so excited. Just Say It Theater partnered with the New Mexico School for the Arts to find actors and share performance space.

Teen actors Tulah Dillman-Stanford, Lucy Shattuck and John Helfrich said they were each drawn to their characters for a different reason.

Shattuck said that her character, Monsoon, is very different from herself. “I like that challenge,” she said. She also mentioned that “the characters have a lot of layers, and I’ve always had a thing with wolves — I love wolves.”

Dillman-Stanford feels very close with the character of Jean. “Jean is around the same age as me and she has these really deep struggles in her life, but she’s just looking for the simple joys of playing a game and being young,” Dillman-Stanford said.

Helfrich, who plays Cliff, was particularly drawn to his character’s relationship with his uncle, Mac. “I’ve had a lot of similar adult figures in my life,” Helfrich said. “I really like the complex relationship between the two of them. Mac is like this big adult alpha wolf, and Cliff is like the pup, except Cliff is a lot more volatile. I think that that contrast is a very accurate representation of teenagers.”

The play not only gives a voice to oft-ignored teenagers and marginalized elders, but also to the current struggles surrounding wildlife and climate issues.

“I very much feel that theater is a source of potential change,” Dunn said. “The reason that Lynn and I formed our theater company was to really embrace the idea of speaking up about things we think need to change and to encourage everyone we work with to do the same.”

For Shattuck, theater artists have the power to create awareness through pieces like The Big Heartless.

“Depending on what kind of messages we want to address, we just spread the word,” she said. “I think the message of this play is that even though life is unfair, you just have to keep going and try and take care of each other.”

“And sometimes you can’t take care of each other,” said Dillman-Stanford.

“But you just gotta try.”

Hannah Laga Abram is a senior at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. Contact her at ceciliasycamore@gmail.com.

If you go

What: The Big Heartless

When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, and runs Thursday-Sunday through March 3.

Where: Warehouse 21, 1614 Paseo de Peralta.

Cost: Tickets are $15, $20, $25. Thursday evening shows are $5 for those under 21 years old.

More information: Call 505-988-1579.