‘A Bright New Boise’ by Samuel D. Hunter, Sardonic, Devastating and Profound, a Review
In A Bright New Boise, Samuel D. Hunter’s sardonic, dark play about events that take take place in a Hobby Lobby break room, the award-winning playwright (A Bright New Boise, The Whale) acquaints us with characters that may be more alien to our cultural beliefs and economic well being than individuals we might converse with in another country. Acutely directed by Oliver Butler and currently running in its Off Broadway Premiere at the Signature Theatre until March 12th, Hunter and Butler reveal a sometimes funny but mostly tragic, portrait, and a cross-section of another America reflected in the 90 minute play’s characterizations, plot and themes.
Hunter opens the play with protagonist Will (the superb Peter Mark Kendall) who, facing the audience, stands at the side of the road, eyes closed, concentrating. Then, he says one word as if to call into existence, time and place, “something.” Four times he says, “Now.” By the play’s conclusion, we understand his cryptic pronouncement which produces only a vast emptiness and “never works.”
In the second scene we meet the feisty, hyper-organized, store manager Pauline, portrayed by the excellent and humorously volatile Eva Kaminsky. Pauline interviews Will for a sales position in the break room at Hobby Lobby, Boise which in 2010 (the setting) is owned by an Evangelical CEO who runs the company as a Christian organization. During the interview Pauline makes Hobby Lobby’s conservatism clear when she reminds Will, “no unions,” explaining that a Hobby Lobby in Kansas was shut down when employees tried to unionize. The economy is struggling, there is little opportunity for those without a college education and the big box stores like Hobby Lobby are the expansive grand employers of the moment. Thus, the minimum wage that Will readily accepts (under $8.00 an hour) is the best for his circumstances and is an offer he dare not refuse for a reason more important than financial. This, we learn with the introduction of another character in the break room, taciturn teenager Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio).
Will’s apparent emotional dislocation is made clear in Kendall’s superb performance. From his evasive and contradictory responses to Pauline’s questions, we understand he needs money and appears to be in unusual life circumstances because he is unable to give her a reference or emergency contact. However, he is hired so that Pauline can continue to run her “tight ship.” He begins to socially settle in by striking up a conversation about music with Alex who is taking his break and wishes not to be disturbed.
Hunter immediately establishes Will’s additional intentions and enjoins the main conceit of the play, “abandonment” and “loss,” setting in motion the conflicts with a shocking surprise. Spoiler Alert: Will announces he is Alex’s father and he proclaims that Alex was named after him so his real name is also Will. Fortunately, Pauline returns and interrupts Will’s announcement. Simultaneously, the TV whose satellite glitches vie between graphic surgeries and monotonous conversations between two Hobby Lobby male employees, snaps back to the Hobby Lobby’s conversational monotony about how to sell products. And a disturbed Alex walks out as Pauline tries to make a joke most Americans would understand, if they have been culturally plugged in for the last two decades.
However, Will doesn’t get the joke or the celebrity associated with it, and even if he did, Kendall’s Will appears overwhelmed about introducing himself to his son. He could care less about Pauline’s attempt to make him feel comfortable and appears lost in his thoughts about how he will negotiate and respond to the brutal questions from Alex that are sure to come.
Will’s deadened reaction is another clue that ties in to Hunter’s characterization of a hapless, unsound father, whose adopted son he has desperately sought out by getting a job at a Hobby Lobby, instead of using another means to contact him that is less traumatizing. From this first turning point of many, the revelations between and among characters spin out as surprises continue in a grotesque emotional and psychological maze that Alex, Leroy, Alex’s brother (Angus O’Brien) and employee Anna (Anna Baryshnikov) inhabit in the coldly remote, depersonalized break room of the Boise, Idaho Hobby Lobby. The sterile, severely lit space is perfectly ironic as a symbolic setting where they attempt to go to relieve the stress of their job, but end up frantically confronting a hellish swamp filled with regrets from their past. The result exacerbates the demeaned alienation of each of the characters who have lost their way and whose religion is unable to help and in fact makes things worse.
By degrees we learn the backstory of Alex and Will. Instead of clarifying toward comfort in a way to salve emotional hurts, by degrees Alex with stress and strain in his questions puts together the puzzle why Will has come to establish a relationship with him. Eventually, after Will reveals the truth of where he lives, the joy his church gave him and the events which transpired there, Alex appears to forgive him and defend him to his brother Leroy who fears Will has another motive for wanting to see Alex. In a secondary plot to enhance the characterizations, Anna and Will stumble upon each other in a darkened break room after hours, which seems even more sinister (the TV is still on vying between blood and guts and boring Hobby Lobby guys).
Anna sneaks her way in beyond closing hours by hiding in various sections of the huge store unnoticed. We learn she does this to avoid her father and brother’s criticism of her always reading and we get the sense that she is a misfit without a medium to feel comfortable in until she has a few conversations with Will whom she likes. Will is homeless; we eventually learn why and what happened to him. Furthermore, he is afraid to sleep in his car.
Their conversation gives occasion for Will to read parts of his Evangelical “End Times” blog to her, which he intends to make into a novel. Anna is taken up with the notion she has met a writer whose work she likes and she encourages him. It is then we understand the extent of his beliefs and his hope of being taken up in the Rapture (often used as a fund raising tactic by Evangelical Mega Churches) away from the wicked hell that has been perpetrated in the culture and on the earth by sinners who must be saved or perish in damnation. We also understand that he feels he has a purpose in converting people before it’s too late. He tells Alex he has to believe in God because the alternative is terrible. He would have to look at himself as an utter failure as a father, whose triumph is working in Hobby Lobby, while he lives in his car. Will tells Alex, “There are greater things in life. There have to be.”
Will gradually works his way into Alex’s world by asking to hear the song Alex wrote with his friend. He praises some of Alex’s poetry. However, Leroy is incensed about Will after he reads articles about Will’s former church and especially after Alex appears to favor Will over his adoptive family and tells Leroy he is changing his life plans. Leroy lashes out in revenge against Will after Pauline affirmed that it doesn’t matter what people’s personal beliefs are, as long as they are on time and do their jobs. However, Leroy involves Hobby Lobby in his revenge, making it impossible for Will to work there. Leroy and Will’s conflict has broken Pauline’s rule to maintain order as the status quo. After working for four years to make the store profitable and organized, she will not allow their conflict to drag it into the chaos that Will has brought with his presence. (Eva Kaminsky’s affirmation speech about Pauline’s taking the store to profitability earlier in the play is corporately magisterial and humorous.) Thus, Will, the last to be hired will be the first to be fired, aside from the fact that Alex and Leroy’s talents make them indispensable.
How events further evolve are both surprising and expected. However, when Leroy confronts Will about Alex, the result is uncertain and unpredictable. Hunter’s writing is freshly wrought and organic. The characters are well-crafted and their motley and unique differences meld well with each other for maximum tension, which abides throughout. By the conclusion Hunter ties Will’s injunction to God, “Now,” and explores another reason why Will seeks out Alex for comfort in a relationship that is not destined to grow closer or even continue unless Will makes a decision to change.
The play is wonderful on many levels. Hunter allows us to get under Will’s skin and into his soul which is both horrifying and sadly authentically truthful if one has been around certain Evangelical sects for more than a few days. Importantly, though we might not be able to put ourselves in Will’s shoes, Kendall portrays Will with empathy and pathos thanks to Butler’s incisive direction. Thus, we can understand his emotional guilt and torment and his desire to be a better person, the point of his religious journey, which becomes sidelined. The relationships Hunter establishes are woven with heightened drama. Alex feels a misfit and is emotionally traumatized by Will moving on a roller coaster of emotions through to the play’s conclusion. That Will doesn’t consider another way to get in touch with Alex speaks to his inner turmoil and disregard for Alex’s feelings and response. However, Will’s need to see Alex is urgent and has to do with the “Now” that is the final puzzle piece that unfolds in the flashback at the very end.
The terrific and terrifying set design by Wilson Chin and jarring fluorescent lighting and vibrant neon lighting in the road scenes by Jen Schriever are evocative and symbolic. That the appliances (i.e. microwave, VCR, etc.) barely function and little attention is given to popping up the color to make a unique, interesting or warm environment speaks volumes about Hobby Lobby, the employees and Pauline who is the epitome of the loyal, harried worker bee manager. The break room set, props and lighting reference the respect that the corporate officials have for their employees in a nullifying environment that is neither challenging, purposeful or life affirming. Hunter conveys the sense of Big Brother when Eva explains to Will as a blind, deaf and dumb team player that it’s a “pretty great company” that knows how to run a business, because everything is “hooked up to the corporate office.” Then, she cheerfully states, “We can’t even turn the air conditioning on without calling Oklahoma.”
The Hobby Lobby envisioned by the director and playwright and what fuels it, also reflects the nature of the commercial culture that creates consumer robots whose function least of all is a purposefully human one. That Will, Alex and Leroy refer to a job there as something loathsome by which to define oneself is further irony because the store is incredibly profitable, if money is its Christian measure of success as the prosperity gospel likes to portray. That Will has accepted religious rhetoric as his mantle and believes the world needs to be destroyed becomes particularly sardonic considering Hobby Lobby’s function and value system as a Christian organization with tenets about love, forgiveness and acceptance.
Another of the themes of the play is manifest in the characterization of these conservative Christians who are devout, yet are incapable of applying the tenets of the religion to their lives to achieve peace and fulfillment. Along with the themes of abandonment, isolation, and purposelessness that nullifies comes the important irony that Hunter relates at a time (2010) before the religious political movement grew into what it is today in 2023 in the culture wars, book bannings and civil rights curtailments. The hypocrisy, spiritual unhappiness and emptiness tied to a culture that is broken and breaks those who live in it to seek other ways to escape (through the belief of the Rapture) Hunter’s ironic play underscores. The play was humorously prescient then, more frightening now. A Bright New Boise is an ironic expose of the worst of Christian sects’ hold on the minds of those like Will and others.
Kudos to the creative team not mentioned before which include April M. Hickman (costume design) Christopher Darbassie (sound design) Stefania Bulbarella (projection and video design). This is one to see especially for the ensemble work, the fine performances and direction that teased out the actors’ efforts to be spot-on authentic. The creatives did a smashing job to fulfill the director’s vision of A Bright New Boise. For tickets go to their website.
‘Blue Ridge,’ An Examination of Soul Rehabilitation in North Carolina, Starring Marin Ireland
How do we tell if our indignation for another’s plight isn’t our own misdirected rage that we ignore at our own peril? How is the healing process from childhood traumas that manifests through addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex and “acting out” initiated? Do those rehabilitating themselves recognize when the process evolves into wellness? How do such individuals recognize the journey to healing? Do they understand all that the arduous process entails before they attempt it? Or do they just move head on and try to change before they are ready because the culture and their anti-social behaviors demand it?
Atlantic Theater Company’s Blue Ridge written by Abby Rosebrock and directed by Taibi Magar raises these questions and many more. The play is superb, but does fall a bit short on one element, despite the fine performances by the ensemble and the excellent production values. The weakness evidences in Rosebrock’s sometimes confounding redirection of focus in examining the protagonist Alison (a nuanced, and layered performance by Marin Ireland whose accent is, at times, ill-executed because she quickly glosses over important, profound lines). Nevertheless, Rosebrock’s work is exceptional in the service of revealing themes which initiate organically from her characters and their interactions with each other, as they rehab in a group home setting.
Currently at the Linda Gross Theater, Blue Ridge takes place at a religious rehabilitation retreat in the gorgeous mountains of western North Carolina (Appalachia). Everpresent are the fundamentalist tenets of Christianity which the characters attempt to espouse and practice. There, at St. John’s Service House, the individuals who have been interviewed and accepted for placement, seek God’s love, forgiveness, joy and peace, reinforced by Sunday church, Wednesday Bible Study, meditation, outside jobs at a pool store and therapeutic group conversation.
However, the process of moving toward wellness is not as easy as it may appear with prayers and Bible work. There must be a complete revolution of one’s soul, a very tricky circumstance indeed; for what is the soul? What is sin? What is the devil? And how do Christian teachings answer psychological traumas? As a key theme which Rosebrock brilliantly reveals, dealing with trauma involves more intricate and complex understanding on a personal level for those who experienced trauma. This involves a life-long process and everyone who undergoes it won’t find any marked yellow brick road at the end of the rainbow. But a good first step is remembering and confronting the trauma alone and/or with expert guidance and love.
The characters, some with overseeing functions like Hern (the pastor played by Chris Stack) and Grace (social worker portrayed by Nicole Lewis) help others, and with empathy and service, seek to rehabilitate themselves. Those, like Alison (Marin Ireland) Wade (Kyle Beltran) and Cole (Peter Mark Kendall), who have been accepted into the program, hope to correct problems which have manifested in self-destructive behaviors. If such behaviors continue, the individuals will be sent to restrictive settings (jail or psychiatric lock up), if they do not improve and heal. Other characters like Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), voluntarily enroll in the program. Cherie knows her own soul’s weaknesses related to her family’s and her own alcoholism. Though she is self-aware, she is blind to her other weaknesses and these set her on a course which may lead to relapse if not confronted.
Rosebrock introduces us to the principals in the first act which largely is humorous exposition to set up the dramatic developments and the climax of the second act. The characters are representational, some with individual problems that run deep but whose cause remains unknown. Their outward issues range from alcohol and drug addictions to anger management issues identified euphemistically as “intermittent explosive disorder.”
Central to the characters’ improvement and social reconstitution is the Wednesday Bible Study where we first meet the others and Alison, a teacher who lost her way and her job because of anger management issues. Alison chose to go to rehab rather than jail for destroying her principal’s car; ironically, he also was the man she “loved.” Marin Ireland’s portrayal reveals Alison’s fierce, hyperbolic and frenetic personality which masks the underlying wounds which Rosebrock intimates but doesn’t clarify by the conclusion of the play.
A word about the character of Alison, who is the linchpin of Rosebrock’s work. One wonders if the play’s dynamism might have been strengthened if Rosebrock had more clearly and with dramatic and active plot points heightened the true issues that fomented Alison’s life-long devastation. At the beginning of Act One, to introduce herself, Alison glibly races through the lines of a song “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood which parallels her behavior that landed her in rehab. We understand that she refers to herself when she quotes: “by this point all the accumulated pain an’ hopelessness, an’ annihilatin degradation, uh’bein a woman in this sexual economy’ve juss… racked the speaker’s brain and body, like a cancer.”
However, we remain unenlightened about the how and the what, even until the end of the play when Wade (Kyle Beltran) confronts her with these lines. Rosebrock never delineates the specifics of Alison’s annihilation and this is key to feeling empathy for her. Though Ireland does a yeowoman’s job in getting us to Alison’s heightened emotional state, our identification with her is muted and unsatisfactory. Perhaps, this is because we do not understand why she hurts so on an individual level. It is not enough to call in the cultural memes as her revelation. The facts and specifics matter; they resonate. But what are they? Thus the fullness and the power of Alison’s emotional state and whether or not she has achieved self-realization to move on to the healing process is opaque. We are not even “seeing through a glass darkly” where she is concerned.
The play turns on Alison’s integration into the program and her recovery. The irony is that she does the work in achieving her external goals and is reinstated as a teacher. However, she doesn’t begin to expurgate the underlying morass of pain in her soul while she is immersed in her sessions and interactions with Wade, Cherie, Hern, Cole, Grace. Indeed, because her self-realizations remain superficial, she becomes the catalyst that exacerbates conflicts and escalates issues for Cherie, Hern, Cole and Grace. As Cherie suggests, Alison blows up a set of circumstances via her own projections. As a result, everything changes for the characters.
Furthermore, Alison doesn’t understand how to get around the humiliation of the negative impact she has afterward. Ironically, though “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” by the end of the play, we see though there are apologies, there is no closure, no forgiveness, no resolution. Each of the individuals is forced to work by himself/herself as the “family” goes its own way in separate directions.
The only one who attempts to deal with himself in an authentic way is Wade. He tries to “make amends” for his not dealing with Alison on a deeper level than he he should have. At the conclusion Wade’s conversation with her is a trigger. However, we do not understand the specifics of the how or why. The rationale appears that she went through something in childhood. So did we all. We are ready to empathize, but are never quite given the chance, a fissure in the play’s development and characterization of Alison.
Rosebrock chooses to develop the play so that the conclusion becomes Alison’s flashpoint of experiencing the pain of her buried, bleeding wounds. The play ends with her emotional breakdown as she appears to allow herself to feel on a deeper level.
This is a risky choice in developing the play.The outcome remains unsatisfying and uncertain. The character Alison, whom we’ve come to accept and appreciate, is a cipher and a conundrum to herself and us. Though Alison has achieved the beginnings of a deep emotional release, Rosebrock sets her spinning in limbo. Any epiphany she might experience is mitigated by questions and doubt. We do not know where her emotional release will take her, nor what specifically it is connected to.
If we did know more about what is “driving her to hydroplane” (a wonderful symbol of her dangerous emotional state), we might have greater empathy. And indeed, if she achieved the makings of an epiphany, we would understand her. The irony is that her emotions belie victimization but we do not understand. Might that have been dramatically revealed to deepen her characterization?
Magar’s direction aptly shepherds the cast as they portray how each of the characters attempts to make their way through their own personal trials that emerge after Alison blows apart the peaceful interactions of the “family” in the second act. These conflict scenes engage us. In the confrontation scene between Alison and Cherie toward the end of the second act, both Lloyd and Ireland hit their target. Their authenticity reveals the extent of Alison’s self-absorption and her misery which spills out onto everyone in the group, especially harming Cherie. This scene is one of the strongest in the play. There are others that work equally well because of fine ensemble work, direction and staging.
Kudos to Adam Rigg (Scenic Designer), Sarah Laux (Costume Designer) Amith Chandrashaker (Lighting Designer) and Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Designer & Additional Composition) for adhering to themes and establishing the tenor and atmosphere of the play. (The final projection is revelatory and symbolic.)
A word of caution. For some actors, the North Carolinian accents were a distraction that occluded rather than clarified. Whether this was because of character portrayal or under-projection is moot. However, because Kyle Beltran, Kristolyn Lloyd, Peter Mark Kendall (to a lesser extent Chris Stack) didn’t overrun their lines and their projection was a sounding bell, their accents sounded unforced.
The play is a worthy must-see for the performances (despite a few rough patches with accents) and for Rosebrock’s metaphoric writing, humor and intriguing thematic questions. Blue Ridge runs with one intermission at the Linda Gross Theater on 336 20th Street between 7th and 8th until 26 January. For tickets go to the website.