A search for order, a desire to connect, a job that can make ends meet without first grabbing your soul – are these things too much to ask? Those were some of the questions asked by A Bright New Boise, the play that first put Samuel D. Hunter on the map twelve seasons ago when the show received a limited Off-Off-Broadway run at the Wild Project witnessed by a lucky few.
I was indeed fortunate to be among them, and have followed Hunter’s career ever since – a career marked by awards like the Obie and a MacArthur Fellowship, bigger productions at esteemed venues, and even a current Oscar-nominated Hollywood adaptation of Boise’s follow-up, the better-known The Whale.
Hunter’s plays would eventually get bigger (The Greater Clements runs almost three hours, Lewiston and Clarkson even served lunch in between its acts) but also stay small and deep (like the intimate A Case for the Existence of God, which in a just world would win this year’s Pulitzer for Drama), but if you’re looking to do a little dramatic archaeology, look no further than the Signature Center, which also mounted Existence earlier this season: they’ve revived Boise, officially bringing it Off-Broadway and showing the roots of one the theatre’s richest voices.
The nuts and bolts of Boise remain the same under the direction of Oliver Butler: Will (Peter Mark Kendall) is an evangelical Christian who has relocated from Rathdrum, Idaho to Boise and gotten work at the local Hobby Lobby. While enigmatic, we learn that he was attached to a tragic scandal, and that he wants to start life anew by reaching out to someone from the past: Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), a young employee at the store.
All of the show’s action takes place in the Hobby Lobby break room, which Wilson Chin has designed to evoke the low-budget sterility of the employees’ lives (a corporate video, courtesy of projection and video designer Stefania Bulbarella playing on a television background lends offbeat color without fully stealing focus). It acts as the geographical nexus for all of the employees, which also include Leroy (Angus O’Brien), Alex’s older brother who has a penchant for provocation; Anna (Anna Baryshnikov), a quiet employee who might just as soon fold in on herself; and Pauline (Eva Kaminsky), the pragmatic branch manager who swears a blue streak. But the break room serves as a sort of purgatory for all five characters, although they are not all waiting for change. In fact, some of them seem to be evading it.
The shining beauty of the play is that none of these five characters represents a type; Hunter is too smart for that. Boise is about the folly and fragility of human life, about people who have, for a combination of reasons, been shunted to the margins. It’s about how much people go through and how little they actually reveal to one another. Their situations are more nuanced than a review could easily summarize or that a play could tidy up. Alex, who is adopted, is unhappy at home and prone to panic attacks; he finds stasis in the store’s quotidian work, which is threatened by Will’s arrival. Anna, meanwhile, finds solace in her conversations with Will, but he takes umbrage at her more casual approach to religion, which, scars and all, still provides a structure to help him face the world.
Every technical choice in Butler’s production echoes the feel of drift shared by the play’s characters. Sound designer Christopher Darbassie’s effects, ranging from the Hobby Lobby PA system to the sound of traffic outside, show how cocooned off from life they are, while Jen Schreiver’s lighting design conveys a dullness, a lack of excitement, a never-ending ennui.
Butler also massages wonderful work from his ensemble, particularly from Diaz-Silverio, making his own off-Broadway debut here, and from Kendall, steadying Will’s internal unrest. One of the deepest impressions made in a theatre this year is hearing how repeat “Now” to a God he wants to deliver him from the pain he is enduring. It’s sad, it’s optimistic, it’s aching. And it goes unanswered.
In working class middle America, no one can hear you scream.
A Bright New Boise