A Bright New Boise, the simple, superb little heartland heartbreaker from playwright Samuel D. Hunter and director Davis McCallum, features characters you’ll recognize from many a theatrical foray into that Christ-haunted Other America: lost souls working the ennui aisle at some desolate big box, a tortured Christian fundamentalist, a Guffmanesque small-town artiste … the usual suspects in a rube tragedy, in other words. Well, this is a rube tragedy — a respectful and honest-feeling one, for a change — and by jingo, it sings.
The script is straightforward, like everything else about this production (from Jason Simms’s eye-poppingly hyperliteral set on down), with a story and structure that’s punch-clock ordinariness itself, but teased with the possibility of the sublime and the Gothic. (A recurring device involving a TV set that malfunctions at highly meaningful moments falls just short of Hell-House egregiousness — but so help me, I was still scared of the damned thing.) Will (Andrew Garman) takes a job at the Hobby Lobby, a chain craft store in an Idaho strip mall, with the sole aim of reconnecting with Alex (Matt Farabee), the son he put up for adoption fourteen years before. It’s a bold and indisputably creepy move, stalking the son you’ve never met at his workplace — and it gets creepier when Will’s revealed to be a charter member of an evangelical congregation recently disbanded under a cloud of scandal. Yet in testament to Hunter’s artistry and McCallum’s smarts, we’re still rooting for the guy, often half against our better judgment: Will spends his evenings quietly tapping away at his online leviathan, a mammoth work of Internet end-time fan fiction. Over and over, night after night, he revises Armageddon, and, to the credit of the playmakers, we’re right there with him. Like us, like anyone with any sensitivities at all, spiritual or otherwise, he simply wants his ghastly, fluoro-lit Wal-world to fall away and reveal a better one. Can we fault him for living in hope? Even if his hope ultimately takes the shape of a horrifying absolute, slouching towards Sam’s Club? As keenly, sensitively played by Garman, Will manages to be both the scariest and the sanest guy in the room.
Here, “the room” is a break room, and Boise is, in many ways, a breakroom-sink melodrama, saved from bathos by Hunter’s unquenchable humor and scrupulous emotional honesty, and McCallum’s spot-on casting and tonal discipline. The Hobby Lobby is peopled with misfits like Will, busted-compass truthseekers with shaky orthodoxies to defend, who are just shy of becoming Types. There’s Alex’s protective foster-brother Leroy (exciting newcomer John Patrick Doherty), an art-school poseur with a rotation of sad agitprop T-shirts (“You Will Eat Your Children”) and delusions of Banksyish grandeur. There’s the manager Pauline (Danielle Slavick), a tinpot technocrat who sees herself locked in a struggle against “chaos.” And then there’s the lost soul, Anna (Sarah Nina Hayon), who’s the most obvious candidate for some kind of conversion — and, miserably, knows it. It’s easy to see how geometrically these tiles could align, and align they do. But rest assured, no easy catharsis answers the altar call, no clouds part, no seas boil — though Hunter keeps you on the edge of your seat, just as Will’s God keeps him on the edge of his.