SANTA FE, N.M. — Several years ago, coming back from a trip to Ojo Caliente with a friend, Dale Dunn was driving into Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285 when she saw what she believes were two Mexican gray wolves running down the highway.
Mexican gray wolves, near extinction, have been reintroduced in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, hundreds of miles from Santa Fe. In 2017, officials estimated that only 114 were alive in the wild.
But Dunn says that after going home and doing some research, she knows that is exactly what she saw.
“They were running on the highway straight at the car,” said Dunn.
“And then, of course, being in Santa Fe, I started telling people this story and they said you should look up … if a wolf is your spirit animal and what that means.” What Dunn found online was that “if you have a wolf encounter, it’s about feeling betrayed and needing to find your pack.”
Lynn Goodwin, co-director with Dunn of the Just Say It Theater Company, says that at the time, they were also in a way searching for a pack, or a “creative home.” Dunn said she’d been reflecting on their journey in theater after some frustrations in the past. “It was just kind of a time of recentering (and) gathering,” said Goodwin.
The encounter with the canines on the highway inspired Dunn to learn more about wolf reintroduction efforts. Then, several months later, on a road trip through Montana, she came across an abandoned reform school just outside Helena.
The “daunting” brick building had razor wire fence around it and an obstacle course out front, and it led her to doing some more research on “tough love” reform schools for teenagers that ended up abusing students more than helping them.
This convergence of encounters inspired Dunn to writing her original play, “The Big Heartless.”
The show, which she’s been working on for three years and is being directed by Goodwin, will premiere in Santa Fe later this week. The drama was a semi-finalist in the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., and a finalist in the Ashland New Plays Festival in Oregon and the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Goodwin described the play as a exploring the “blending of humanity and nature.” Dunn added that it also addresses humans’ mistakes, fear of the unknown and the desire to push aside things people view as out of control or wild.
“It’s about embracing the wild in all of us,” said Dunn.
“The Big Heartless” follows Mac, a biologist living in southwestern Montana who specializes in wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park. The park hosted the first federal wolf reintroduction project in the country back in the 1990s.
Mac lives an isolated life, away from his family and most people, except for his sick, elderly neighbors and their orphaned teenage granddaughter, Jean, who occupy a nearby cabin.
His sharp focus on the wolves, especially two that have run off and which he’s desperately trying to find before ranchers or hunters get them, becomes distracted when his nephew and a friend escape from an abusive reform school and end up at his door.
Mac’s nephew, Cliff, forces him to re-evaluate. While he’s been so dedicated to helping animals stay protected, he’s been ignoring this family member who has long needed his help.
Without giving too much away, Goodwin explained that a disaster forces Mac to “make a choice that’s bigger than what he ever thought he’d have to make.”
Throughout the story, parallels between the runaway teens and the runaway wolves are evident – both can often be feared or misunderstood by society.
“Because they often aren’t doing exactly what we should be doing or acting the right way or something,” Dunn said.
As a teacher – at the New Mexico School for the Arts, which is helping produce the play, the Santa Fe Indian School and THE former Santa Fe University of Art and Design – Dunn said she’s found that many young people just need an outlet and to be heard.
“Just to put them away isn’t serving society, it’s breaking it,” said Dunn.
The play stars Matt Sanford, who plays Mac, Tulah Dillman-Stanford as Jean, John Helfrich as Cliff, Lucy Shattuck as Cliff’s fellow escapee Monsoon, and Dan Friedman and Jennifer Graves as grandparents Ned and Tootie.
“The Big Heartless” will run Feb. 14-March 3. After the Feb. 24 performance, a talk and Q&A is scheduled with local wolf reintroduction experts John Oakleaf, Dave Parsons and Nick Smith.