Play about redemption and survival speaks to good and bad of Alaska village life

BETHEL -- For a play that is intended to combat suicide, "The Winter Bear" is surprisingly funny. Its humor and depiction of the good and bad, the old and the new of village Alaska -- fish soup and sno-gos, bingo and Facebook, alcohol and despair -- help it reach beyond performances into the lives of those who see it.

The biggest grant supporting the Fairbanks-based Winter Bear Project comes from the state Department of Health and Social Services. In Bethel this week, Paul O'Brien, who lost his son to suicide and whose Drew's Foundation combats suicide, is a lead sponsor and organizer. Alaska Native organizations are sponsors. The playbill features a full page of ways to get help. Its website has links on suicide prevention.

"Winter Bear" is a story of redemption and survival in rural Alaska, rooted in the life of Athabaskan elder Sidney Huntington and written by Anne Hanley of Fairbanks, former Alaska writer laureate.

This month, a cast and crew of 12 is traveling on small planes -- with sets in tow -- to Western Alaska villages for a three-week tour of performances and workshops.

"When we first started to tour with it, we realized we were doing more than the play," Hanley said in a recent interview. "To bring a play that essentially mirrors people's own life is amazing."

The play was first performed in 2008 and has been produced regularly since 2010. After this month's tour, she said, it will have been performed in 31 Alaska communities large and small, from Anchorage to Scammon Bay.

"This show belongs in villages," said director Erick Robertson, a University of Alaska Anchorage theater graduate who is preparing to take over the role of producer from Hanley.


The play centers on a fictional relationship between Huntington and a troubled teenager who's been sentenced by a tribal court for trying to burn down the village school. The drama gradually reveals the teen was trying to burn himself, just as the fictional Huntington was secretly hiding his medicine as a way to slowly die.

When a bad man tells Huntington, played by Brian Pagaq Wescott, that the boy's mother is a "falling down drunk" and that the whole family is no good, Huntington replies, "I was a falling down drunk until I got up."

Huntington and the teen talk about killing a bear, which Huntington refers to as "a big one" or "big animal." The teenage character, Duane "Shadow" David, played by Justin Stewart, talks about using powers from his video game.

"You are so stupid you'd pack a flashlight in July!" Huntington tells the teen.

This week, for the first time and after years of trying, the play came to Bethel, the hub of a region devastated by suicide in a state that usually tops the nation in its rate of suicide death.

"This is a presentation we hope brings hope and healing and an uplifting message to everyone who sees it," O'Brien told the Bethel crowd this week at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center. He organized a community potluck before the Wednesday show.

After two performances earlier in the week, the actors, crew and playwright are holding theater workshops as part of Bethel's Cama-i Dance Festival this weekend. On Saturday, they are doing one on hip-hop.

The cast is a mix of Alaska Native and non-Native actors, most of them young and many of whom studied acting in college and theater school. Four of the characters on stage are spirit animals -- raven, lynx, wolf and wolverine -- that sometimes improvise a bit with the children who approach during the show. A couple who met through "Winter Bear" will marry next month in Anchorage.

The Bethel stop brings lead actor Wescott for the first time to the community where his mother, who is Athabaskan, was born. Her family is from McGrath and Crooked Creek. His father was a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He grew up in Fairbanks.

He said he draws on dysfunction within his own family to portray the anguish of the Huntington character, a man who lost sons to suicide and who is battling an internal death demon of his own.

"Acting is not about faking it. It's about finding the truth," Wescott said after a Bethel show, sitting on the cultural center's stage. In village shows, they perform on gym floors with children and sometimes dogs running about. He has been playing Huntington since 2010.

"Even though I've done this play before, I have to keep digging and finding fresh truth so it's real and truthful when I'm up here."

Hanley said the idea for the play originated in 2007 with a group of young men in Fairbanks upset over the suicides of so many. They wanted to base it on Huntington, whose autobiography, "Shadows on the Koyukuk," provides some of the story. The group hired Hanley to write it.

Her early draft danced around the theme of suicide.

"I realized I had a nice play, but I didn't really get at that issue," she said. It seemed too personal. Huntington has lost three sons to suicide. Then Hanley sat with Huntington and asked him directly if she could go there.

Will it do any good? he asked. She told him she didn't know but wanted to try. He told her OK.

"I went back and rewrote it," Hanley said. Now suicide is a subtheme woven throughout the narrative. But it's not the focus.


Huntington will turn 100 next month. He saw the play in 2010 in his home community of Galena, near an old Koyukon Athabaskan fish camp. Then last year, he traveled with a niece by boat 35 miles on the Yukon River to see it in the village of Nulato.

Before the performance, he spoke to the audience. It was hard to hear the elder, but his message came through, Hanley said.

"He talked about how in the early days suicide was never heard of. It wasn't part of the culture. It wasn't part of people's experience. Now of course it is," she said.

And Huntington talked about how devastating the loss of his sons was to the family.

The play is bringing a message of inner strength to village after village, say the actors and crew.

Huntington's support matters, Wescott said.

"If we didn't have permission to go all -- to take a full flying leap off the cliff, this wouldn't work," he said.

On stage, the character of Huntington is an old man and flashes back to a terrible time when he was 5.


"The hardest part is dipping into the really painful private traumas of life," Wescott said. "I haven't had three sons commit suicide. But to play the role, I had to go to similar places in my own life, and that's hard to do."

That's the truth -- the resiliency -- he's searching for, on stage under the lights.

In "Winter Bear," the teenager is alone when he faces a big one, a winter bear, and it dies on his spear. That struggle is hidden behind a screen. But the audience sees his fear before he takes the stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, giving a speech for Huntington.

Afterward, Alaska Native sobriety leader and musher Mike Williams of Akiak approached the actors. He said he hopes the play comes to his village soon. He lost six brothers to alcohol-related deaths, one of them a suicide.

"My dream has always been to bring this to Alaska Native communities, where they would understand it," Hanley said. "It's a powerful thing to bring a play to an audience it was truly meant for."

"We have in our community some challenges we need to face," Wescott said. "We in this little theatrical company are the ones who can help start a conversation."

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.