“History is different when you’re 6 years old,” says Alice, a character in the first half of Samuel D. Hunter’s new play duet Lewiston/Clarkston. In her 70s, Alice owns some land along the Snake River, outside the northern Idaho city named for Meriwether Lewis, whom she claims as a distant ancestor. Across the river in the Washington town named for William Clark — and in the play named for that town — a young man called Jake has just arrived from the East Coast and picked up a night-shift stocking job at Costco. Clark is somewhere way back in Jake’s family tree, and Jake carries a copy of the explorer’s journals in his backpack. “I mean, if you think about it,” Jake tells his fellow employee, Chris, a local who’s never left the area, “all these stores like Costco in towns like this, hundreds of miles in between one another — maybe this is like the new West … Maybe we’re like the last American pioneers.”
Hunter’s smart, sad, inquisitive plays rest somewhere between Jake’s tentative sense of wonder, Alice’s wry weariness, and Chris’s flat skepticism upon hearing his new co-worker’s theory. “That’s like the most depressing thing I’ve heard in awhile,” Chris says, before he goes back to instructing Jake on shelf-stocking: “Cheese puffs go on the bottom.” Hunter, who was born and raised in Idaho, is playing with big ideas inside small boxes: He’s interested in American disenchantment, in the great adventure stories we’ve told ourselves about ourselves, and the legacy of those stories in a time when “there’s just nothing left to discover.” His characters are contemporary lost souls, too aware of the underbelly of the American narrative — of all that was lost and stolen and destroyed in the name of exploration and expansion — to believe in anything so naïve as a national dream, but still searching, stumbling down unknown paths toward something as small, or as great, as each other.
Lewiston and Clarkston had separate premieres at different theaters, but the script refers to them as a single piece: “A play in two parts.” They need one another — Lewiston especially needs Clarkston, which is tightly crafted, tender, and at times devastating, while its preceding play feels more nascent, as if Hunter’s still finding his way. Director Davis McCallum stages both pieces with simple dignity, locating the intimate, evening-length production — each play is about 80 minutes long, and there’s a 45-minute dinner between them that’s included in your ticket — in what’s usually the seating area of the compact Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The space has been stripped almost bare by set designer Dane Laffrey and lit by Stacey Derosier with a combination of parking-lot murk (in Clarkston) and vulnerable brightness (in Lewiston) that allows us to watch our neighboring audience members. There are only 51 of us, and we perch on folding chairs and high stools, packed in close on all sides of the action, the theater’s frosted block-glass windows exposed and admitting the evening shadows and flashes of Greenwich Village.
Exposed is how both production and audience feel, and that’s as it should be. Lewiston and Clarkston are plays about the necessary pain of starting again — and again and again — in the face of disillusionment with the world and with ourselves. In Lewiston, we meet Alice just as she’s about to let go of her last 20 acres of land. The property has been in her family since the 1850s, but she’s broke, running a laughably unprofitable roadside fireworks stand with her 53-year-old, gay (not out, not in Lewiston) roommate, Connor. The subdivision developers that have eaten up all the rest of her acreage want to take the remainder and give her a condo by the pool for her losses. Connor (Arnie Burton) works part-time at Walgreens to make ends meet, and he and Alice (Kristin Griffith) mostly subsist on Michelob Light and reheated Tater Tots. Then Alice’s estranged granddaughter Marnie (Leah Karpel) shows up — young, earnest, and self-righteous — with secrets, resentments, and brand-new backpacking gear in tow — having run from the urban farm in Seattle that she dropped out of college to found. “Don’t you want to — I don’t know, self-actualize or whatever?” she says to Connor in a moment of extreme oblivion, having thoughtlessly called him out for being in the closet. “Seems like you’ve been self-actualizing your entire life,” Connor replies, his eyes hurt and hard. “How’s that going for you?”
Burton is remarkable as Connor, who’s kindhearted, loyal, and far more complex than Marnie knows. Without ever getting soppy, he’s Lewiston’s heart, while Griffith is its steely, self-protecting backbone. As they face off with Karpel’s determined, defensive Marnie — who’s come back to the family land intending to buy if from her grandmother, and essentially planting her flag and demanding it as her birthright — Hunter reveals the blind spots of both generations, particularly the younger. “You have $30,000?” Connor grunts when Marnie tells him about the offer she’s made Alice. He pauses, then remembers he spotted her for dinner earlier: “Your pizza cost twelve bucks.”
Money is real in Lewiston/Clarkston in a way it’s often just not on New York stages. We’ve all seen the extravagantly produced issue play, in which characters who apparently never have to worry about making rent debate high-minded progressive talking points in sets that look like multimillion-dollar Cobble Hill brownstones. But in the purposefully revealed, peeling walls of Rattlestick, and in the anxious bodies of Hunter’s characters, money isn’t an afterthought, and it’s the young people that have always had enough of it who — in spite of their aggressively woke posturing — have the most to learn.
In Clarkston, Jake (Noah Robbins), like Marnie, comes from out of town, bringing with him a degree from Bennington in Post-Colonial Gender Studies, an upbringing by parents who hyphenated his last name and were “hyper-okay” with his coming out (“like to the point where it was a little annoying actually”), and a complete ignorance of what it means to be poor. “What really pisses me off,” Chris (Edmund Donovan) fumes at him in one of Clarkston’s sharpest scenes, “is I don’t think you know how much [$5,000] is… I think you could call up Mommy or Daddy and they would send you $5,000. I think for you $5,000 is pretty much meaningless … Do you know what $5,000 is to me? Five thousand dollars is what I can put toward my college loans after eighteen months of working full time. That’s what $5,000 dollars means to me.”
Marnie and Jake are the explorers in their respective plays, and they’re not bad people. But like other explorers before them, they come full of assumptions, pretensions, and self-aggrandizing notions of their own enlightenment in a backward world. Hunter is on uncommon terrain for a contemporary playwright with something political to say: Not many new plays these days dare to point to the immaturities of the young progressive left, the privilege that it takes even to devote your time to privilege-checking. “I’m sorry. I was being mean,” says Marnie to Connor after snubbing his job at the Walgreens. Then she adds, “… And classist.” Connor raises an eyebrow. The fact that Marnie knows the word doesn’t mean she gets it yet.
But of course, Marnie’s suffering. And Jake is too. And so are Alice and Connor. And Chris and his mother, Trish. Hunter has compassion for all his characters, and so do we, even in their cruelest, most messed-up moments. Both Marnie and Alice are carrying the weight of Marnie’s mother’s death — she killed herself when her daughter was 8, after walking the Lewis and Clark trail — and Marnie is actually carrying the relics of that journey, cassette tapes that her mother recorded like journals as she retraced her ancestor’s footsteps. (Lewis committed suicide, too, and Hunter is consistently looping the threads of his plays back into their historical inspiration.) She can’t bring herself to listen to the last one, or to tell Alice the real reason she’s run from Seattle, looking for a home, for some tiny patch of land where something new could grow.
Jake’s got a secret too, but he’s forced to let Chris in on it early on after a spasm that causes him to spill a jumbo-size tub of popcorn kernels all over the Costco aisle floor. He’s got Huntington’s disease. “I’m gonna be dead before I’m 30, pretty much for certain,” he says blankly, and Chris subtly pulls back, uncertain how to respond. But the real trajectory of Clarkston is Jake and Chris’s cautious motion toward each other. Both young men are gay (though Chris, like Connor, is quiet about it), and an awkward hookup attempt soon turns into a deeper, scarier kind of intimacy, a relationship that’s less about sex than it is about really seeing the other person. The sweet, funny scene in which Chris — who quietly writes fiction and aspires to an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop — reads one of his stories out loud to Jake is beautifully played by both actors. Robbins — brisk and diminutive, vulnerable and voluble — is right on as Jake, and Donovan makes Chris hugely sympathetic. He nails the character’s suspension between child and adult, his natural intelligence and his lack of experience, his fantasies of getting out and his ingrained, dull fear that he never will.
That desolation comes in part from his having grown up with an addict. Chris’s mother, Trish — a former meth junkie who swears she’s gone clean — fills out the cast of Clarkston, and her presence is a brilliant stroke on Hunter’s part. The play could have easily been a two-hander, but Trish catapults its stakes and concerns to new heights. She also turns the play into a reverse mirror for Lewiston, reshuffling the numbers in the stories’ encounters between the generations. As the desperate, shiny-eyed Trish, Heidi Armbruster is frighteningly fantastic. In bootcut jeans, blingy belts, and tight, tucked-in T-shirts (the costumes, by Jessica Wegener Shay, feel particularly spot-on in her case), she shows up in the Costco parking lot pleading for her son’s forgiveness. Of course, she never actually says it that way. She just comes around to bring him groceries, or to offer him a free breakfast at Denny’s (where she works) after his night shift. Donovan’s whole body goes tense in Chris’s interactions with his mother, who smiles and cajoles and promises great times ahead. Their scenes together — especially the last one, which crescendos into terrible emotional violence — are like punches to the sternum. Armbruster is wild and wheedling, her exuberance tinged with toxicity, but despite it all, her fierce love for Chris is clear, as is his for her, even through his horrified tears.
Both Lewiston and Clarkston end on the Fourth of July, and there’s a poignant satisfaction to realizing that the stories have been unfolding concurrently, with only a river between them. At each conclusion, a pair of characters sit, or stand, side by side, looking out at the unknown on this country’s so-called birthday, while all the troubled complexity of the land they stand on fills the air around them like the smoke from a sparkler. “I guess I have no idea what’s in front of me,” says Jake to Chris, and for the first time, Davis puts them up on Rattlestick’s actual stage, looking out from a new perspective in a cool wash of light. Jake blinks as if into the sun: “That feels new, at least.” In its intimacy and its honesty, Lewiston/Clarkston suggests that the terra incognita that remains for Americans isn’t outside but in. Our own souls and the souls of our neighbors — that’s what we’ve got to be brave enough, and kind enough, to explore.
Lewiston/Clarkston is at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through December 2.