The fictional town of Cranberry, New York (forty miles from Rochester) in Eboni Booth’s new play, Primary Trust, is evoked by set designer Marsha Ginsbeg’s dollhouse set as a quaint, walkable small town. A scale model town square that includes a warehouse, several stores, a church, a local bar, and the titular bank, it calls to mind It’s a Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls and Our Town’s Grover Corners – if they had been hit by the erosion of decades and several generations gone by. The small-town feel remains, but the lack of connection is no longer there. Like the storefronts, the people of Cranberry have seen better times.
Primary Trust, directed by Knud Adams in a world premiere production at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, shows what it means to merely get by in a small town when the warmth has dissipated and life has calcified into something colder through her protagonist, Kenneth (an astounding William Jackson Harper, capping a checkered resume with a career-best performance here). Single and with no family – he was orphaned at 10 – Kenneth spends his days working at the local bookstore and evenings downing Mai Tai’s at a local dive bar with his sole friend, Bert (a very good Eric Berryman). Kenneth’s life depends on this comforting routine; even in the small quietude of Cranberry, too much change can overwhelm and stunt him.
But mandatory change comes when the owner of the bookstore (Jay O. Sanders, in one of several roles), must sell and close the bookstore to pay for a surgical procedure. Kenneth doesn’t know how to assert himself – his one job was arranged by social workers – but he’s granted a boon from Wally’s waitress Corinna (April Matthis), who’s heard about an opening at the titular bank for a teller. Kenneth gets the job (again reporting to a largely sensitive manager played by Sanders), and appears to be a natural for the role.
Yet Kenneth struggles with his newfound sense of agency, real but fleeting as it is. Booth’s play isn’t exactly a sophisticated show, but it’s a delicate one, uniquely attuned to theatricalizing some of the tools to which Kenneth has developed just to function in a world so full of solitude – and this extends from Isabella Byrd’s evocative early-evening lighting to Luke Wygodny’s live offstage music, all the way down to the care with which Matthis and Sanders fill out the multiple roles they each play – right down to the placement of a deposit slip or the lighting of a candle.
And it’s especially evident in Harper’s nuanced, tender performance. It’s not clear who exactly we are, but in directly addressing us, the audience, we become Kenneth’s confidants, and Harper’s ability to clue us into his character’s struggles – every step into a new building, any order different than his trusted Mai Tai represents a challenge and a trigger – channels the sublime.
Laura Pels Theatre