The featureless break room of a Hobby Lobby store. A parking lot next to a freeway. Not places that would seem fertile ground for an incisive exploration of life and loneliness. Yet the ordinariness of the settings is just one of the brilliant choices revealed in Loudmouth Collective’s production of Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise.” It’s the stage equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting, in which a bland exterior only hints at the turmoil of emotions and relationships swirling beneath the surface.
The play opens with a cryptic scene of a man standing alone onstage intoning the word “now.” It then segues into a scene in which Hobby Lobby manager Pauline (a brashly comic and profane Karen Wiese-Thompson) is interviewing that same man, who we discover is Boise newcomer Will (Adam Whisner), for a cashier’s position. As the action unfolds, we discover that Will’s checkered past includes involvement with a scandal-ridden evangelical church and that he’s accepted this dead-end job in order to reunite with his teenage son, who was adopted as a baby and now works at Hobby Lobby.
Over the course of two acts, Hunter cleverly peels back the layers of the play’s five characters, revealing their motivations, conflicts and secrets. Whisner’s Will is a man palpably uncomfortable in his own skin and suffused, even in his lighter moments, with an unutterable sorrow. His often halting delivery, wary body posture and intense focus reflect a dichotomy between his desire for human connection and his unease with the world that surrounds him. We discover that his repetition of the word “now” is a plea for the coming of the Rapture.
He’s well-matched by Spencer Harrison Levin’s Alex, the son faced with the difficult job of reconciling his real father with the fantasies he’s nurtured over the years. Levin offers a beautifully layered performance in which his inarticulate hostility only partially masks a painfully naked vulnerability.
Zach Garcia is forcefully controlled as Alex’s adopted brother, presenting a glib, ironic surface that vies with a tiger-like protective instinct. Anna Hickey is poignantly needy as a co-worker who’d rather hang out in the break room than return to an unhappy home, while Wiese-Thompson offers a hilarious portrait of a woman who’s managed to create a small oasis of order out of chaos.
Director Natalie Novacek artfully balances this production on a razor’s edge between comedy and dark intensity, doing justice to a work that neither trivializes its characters’ concerns nor indulges in polemics. It’s not surprising that this complex, thought-provoking play won a 2011 Obie Award for Playwriting, and Loudmouth Collective deserves much credit for bringing it to Twin Cities audiences in such finely wrought fashion.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.