Wolves and run­aways are in­spi­ra­tion for ‘The Big Heart­less’



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.


Matt San­ford, left, plays Mac, a bi­ol­o­gist spe­cial­iz­ing in wolf rein­tro­duc­tion, in “The Big Heart­less,” an orig­i­nal work by Santa Fe play­wright Dale Dunn. New Mex­ico School for the Arts stu­dent Lucy Shat­tuck, right, co-stars


Tu­lah Dill­man-Stan­ford (top), John Hel­frich and Lucy Shat­tuck star in Dale Dunn’s play “The Big Heart­less.” It pre­mieres at Ware­house 21 on Thurs­day.

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