Friday, October 01, 2010

THEATER: A Bright New Boise

Photo/Stephen Taylor 

In Samuel D. Hunter's previous play, Jack's Precious Moment, a genuine religious struggle was lost amid an exaggerated reality and an overly comic tone. His latest, A Bright New Boise, is all the more arresting, given its grounding in the mundane and ho-hum. Fifty-something Will (the tremendous Andrew Garman) is praying ("Now. Now. Now.") before an interview with the high-strung Pauline (Danielle Slavick): why is he so eager to get a minimum-wage, part-time employment at the Hobby Lobby (a big-box craft supply store)? It soon comes out that he's actually the father of fellow employee Alex (Matt Farabee), with whom he hopes to reconnect so that he has something to live for, since his prayers for the Rapture to come burn his ugly world away have gone unanswered: "Without God, all I am is a terrible father who lives in his car and works at Hobby Lobby--there has to be something more."

Davis McCallum's naturalistic approach works exceedingly well here, especially on Jason Simms's picture-perfect break-room set. Hobby Lobby promotional videos blare at all hours on the television--except for when the satellite feeds cross and accidentally show graphic surgical footage instead--and the microwave  makes loud clunking noises as it heats up Will's pathetic Chef Boyardee lunch. The Wal-Mart-greeter-like outfits and abstractly chippy corridor only re-enforce the "cheer" these workers have, as does Pauline's aggressively work-focused attitude, a sort of anti-faith-faith that is meant to keep her too busy to think about the quality of her life. Surely there must be more.

It's a cold, calculating look at the reasons for faith, but in a warm, seriocomic way that takes its characters seriously enough to laugh with them, not at them. (It's in many ways the sort of play you'd expect Neil LaBute. albeit a nicer version, to have written.) Nor is it dismissive of anyone's views: Leroy (John Patrick Doherty), Alex's foster brother and the sort of brash artist who sets out to "deliberately make you uncomfortable," is allowed to see Will's faith as nonsense, but that doesn't make it so. Coworker Anna (Sarah Nina Hayon) has a rough past of her own, but she uses her Lutheran faith as a tool, not a crutch. And though Alex is surrounded by all these views, he's developed one of his own, creating horrible rape-and-kidnapping stories about his past in order to gin up sympathy for what he sees as a bleak and hopeless future.

They joke, they smile, and they hurt, and they do it so sincerely that A Bright New Boise will break your heart. Over the course of these two hours, Will is given chance after chance to step away from his negative choices and to live in the present, rather than to desperately await the future. His cult-like church has been dissolved (pending the criminal investigation of its pastor), there's a hint of romance between him and Anna, there's an on-again-off-again relationship with his temperamental son, and even Leroy--grudgingly--is willing to give him a chance to make things right, and yet he is too invested in his memories, in his choices, to truly make a fresh start. The tragedy of Will's life is that there is more, but to embrace it, he must accept that his faith must be less.

For we in the audience, however, there is no such crisis of faith: we can accept, conscience clear and free, that A Bright New Boise is nothing less than a good, challenging play.

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