La Jolla Playhouse Presents Redwood

Is Living in a Forest Canopy the Answer

By: - Mar 03, 2024

Redwood, a musical drama conceived and written by Tina Landau and Idina Menzel, is currently playing at the La Jolla Playhouse.  Composer Kate Diaz provides the expansive score with lyrics by Diaz and Landau.  

Redwood tells the story of Jesse (played by Idina Menzel), a hard-charging, no-holds-barred New Yorker who is struggling to find purpose in her life following the death of her young adult son. 

The urbanite Jesse, buried by overwhelming loss, unable to cope with work or communicate with her wife, gets in her car and drives her west.  As she drives, she always encounters someone who reminds her of her son. She automatically gets back in the car and keeps driving west.  She drives until, completely exhausted, she falls asleep amid a forest of redwood trees in Eureka, California.  

In the woods, Jesse is found by two tree biologists, Finn (Michael Park) and Becca (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe).  Neither of these biologists seems comfortable in mainstream society; their world is the forest.  Finn, hailing from posh East Coast society, immediately sees a kindred spirit in Jesse, whereas Becca, wants her gone and out of the forest.  However, they end up teaching Jesse about redwood trees and their role in the forest.  

Grief-stricken Jesse develops a deep personal attachment to an immense redwood tree.  Taught by Finn, she climbs high into the canopy and starts to live there, becoming one with the tree and nature.  

Refusing to leave the tree during a dangerous wildfire, Jesse has an otherworldly experience with her dead son, who had died in a hotel room of a drug overdose.  He tells her he is not the ideal son and that she must make a choice; bury her head in grief or go and live her life. Jesse is at last able to return to her life in New York and commit to her partner and the future.

The set of Redwood is stunning.  The tree, named Stella by Jesse, dominates the stage in its majesty. Imaginative camera work, aided by the sounds from Diaz’s score, aptly recreates the immensity of the California redwood forest and the canopy hundreds of feet above the ground.  Vertigo-inducing tree-climbing sequences are orchestrated by ‘vertical dance’ company BAMDALOOP.  Through song, Finn and Becca teach the audience tree biology, how they grow, how old they are, their resilience, and their impact on the environment. 

A common trend in people experiencing personal crisis is a spiritual pilgrimage like the Camino de Santiago in Portugal and Spain.  People who have walked this trail describe their journey as profoundly spiritual.  Walking the trail allows pilgrims to appreciate the beauty of the world around them and to find solace in the simplicity of life. Richard Powers’ epic Overstory shows us how much like trees we are.

Redwood is a play about a person seeking redemption and purpose. Jesse finds that redemption by living in and becoming one with the majestic world of the redwood forest in California.