Working at Life
A full spectrum, from dark to bright.by Bill Rodriguez, The Providence Phoenix
There are all sorts of ways to search for meaning in life, or give meaning to it, and we’re not handed a checklist at birth. The characters in A Bright New Boise, by Samuel D. Hunter, come up with a wide array of meanings, to various and sometimes disappointing results. 2nd Story Theatre’s well-performed production (through March 30), directed by Mark Peckham, helps us sympathize with their solutions, each of them fashioned in desperation.
We’re in the break room of an Idaho iteration of the Hobby Lobby, a nationwide big box chain of arts and crafts supplies, protecting greater Boise from a construction paper shortage. At first we think this could be a comedy, or at least a dramedy, because one prominent character is such a stitch. Pauline (Suzy Bowen-Powers) is the store manager, so competent that she has turned this branch from a rat-infested dump into a thriving showcase. Frantic but self-possessed, she tosses F-bombs like confetti and calmly tolerates her staff’s neuroses as long as they keep stocking shelves and manning cash registers.
But the central character is Will (Nathanael Lee). He has just moved here from up north, ostensibly for a change of scenery. He is also escaping a church scandal he was peripherally involved in, but his main reason for relocating is that his relinquished-at-birth teenaged son works at Hobby Lobby.
That’s Alex (Patrick Saunders). He’s a reclusive, nervous wreck of a kid, and when his hitherto unmet bio dad announces himself, Alex wants nothing to do with him. But his adoptive parents have made him feel unwanted, so his reluctance is bound to change.
Will presents a mystery for us, standing in the parking lot, looking up and muttering, “Now! Now! Now!” We learn that he is a fundamentalist who believes in an imminent Rapture, that glorious day of Apocalypse when all of us unworthy unchosen ones will stare up in envy as good Christians rise to heaven intact. The playwright risked our dismissing the guy as a loony, but before we learn of Will’s belief we see him anchored by parental love, patient in the face of the boy’s abusive resentment. Hell is hell on Earth, both Will and Alex separately, explicitly express, to dire consequences. When we learn that the scandal Will was involved with concerned the death of a teenaged boy, we know why the absent father chose this time to seek out his son.
Lightening this dark atmosphere, since Pauline and her fuck you’s can’t be around all the time, is Anna (Tray Gearing). Her search for meaning, apparently, is simply a search for a man to take her away from being home with her father and brothers. She and Will both usually hide as closing time approaches so they can have some peace and quiet, she to read and he to work on his online blog/novel. She’s cheerful and flirtatious, at least until he shows his true personality; a hint is that when she blurts a mild swear word, he explosively objects.
The last character is Leroy (James Lucey), Alex’s protective brother. He provides a passionate intensity and a show of independence, coming to work wearing T-shirts emblazoned with various obscenities, shocking customers. Pauline puts up with that because, as an art student, “I’m the only one in the store who knows anything about art supplies, so I can pretty much do whatever I want.” His T-shirts are one example of his confrontational works. Art is his religion, and he takes his kid brother to museums, hoping to convert him from his nihilistic convictions.
Playwright Hunter does a good job letting each of these people assert or explore their distinctive value systems, showing more than telling us where they’re at. Will agrees that, as Alex says, “Hell is all around us.” Leroy worships creativity and beauty, Anna searches for happiness, and Pauline for pride in accomplishment. A full spectrum, from dark to bright.
The theater’s publicity notes that Hunter’s first job was at a Walmart in Moscow, Idaho, where he said he found the break room to be “almost a sanctuary.” If only all these characters, when we leave them in this play, could feel so safe.