Review: A Bright New Boise by Playhouse San Antonio
by Michael Meigs
This is the break room at the Hobby Lobby in Boise, Idaho. Never mind that it doesn't exist -- there's a Hobby Lobby seven miles away in Meridian and another twenty miles away in Nampay -- but in A Bright New Boise you're not in Idaho at all. You're in the vast loneliness of America's small towns. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter uses the emptiness of franchised America as a metaphor for the connections that are gone and the communities that do not exist any more.
Will's looking for a job, any job, even a minimum wage 38-hour week at a chain store that sells craft goods, fabric, hobby supplies and notions. No-nonsense store manager Pauline interviews him, lays down the rules, and gives him the job. Over the course of two acts Will and we are also introduced to three other employees -- dreamy Anna, snarling Leroy, and Leroy's stepbrother Alex, a teenager who shuns company and has probably been diagnosed as a high-functioning victim of Asperger's syndrome. Will, who's so alone in the world that he can't think of anyone to put down as an emergency contact on the appication form, turns out to have chosen this particular Hobby Lobby because he wants to connect with someone who doesn't even know he exists.
Playwright Samuel D. Hunter draws vivid, complicated contemporary characters, and director Omar Leos has picked a fine cast to bring them and their dilemmas alive. Will is the focus of the story -- and despite his inhibitions and reticence, he's the protagonist, for he does in a spurt of agonized revelation make contact with the person he's seeking. Director Leos's decision to put Playhouse San Antonio artistic director George Green into the role serves both the play and the Playhouse.
Green, chosen to lead the financially pressed institution a year and a half ago, sharply cut the staff and revised both budget and programming, alarming some in the arts community. The waves have subsided somewhat by now, and Green's finely tuned, deeply felt performance as the lonely, vulnerable Will demonstrates his concentration in a self-effacing portrayal of deep emotion. Those of us who knew of Green only from news reports and Playhouse communications can now feel that we've seen the man. He can talk the talk as well as walk the walk. Or, to put it less flippantly, George Green has the gift.
Is it worse when faith fails you or when it never offers itself to you? Will has scuttled to Boise because the evangelical church that had sheltered him both spiritually and physically -- as its janitor-cum-bookkeeper -- fell apart in scandal. In this tawdry room with a couple of crummy tables, a minimal kitchenette, and an ominously unpredictable private-channel television, he guards his private pains. He hangs out here after the store closes, tapping away on his laptop, trying to create a world where those images of redemption and rapture come true. Ditzy Anna does the same, it turns out, hiding behind display stands as the lights are turned off and the doors are closed; she's just as fixated on alternate realities, but they're wrapped in the glossy paperback covers of thick novels of popular fiction. Catie Carlisle as Anna is distracted, gushy, apt to blurt out anything that crosses her mind ("Shut up!" she admonishes herself). Carlisle makes Anna sweet but clueless -- and too often difficult to understand in the rush of words without precise diction, serving the character but occasionally short changing the audience.
Store manger Pauline, portrayed by Meredith Bell Alvarez, is sharp, loud, cynical and humorous, the captain on a sluggish cargo liner on the way to nowhere. While the others are dreamers to greater or lesser degree, Pauline's a doer. Forget the heart of gold, because that doesn't make the shoddy merchandise move; Alvarez's Pauline may be the only grownup in sight, and that's because she has no desire to be somewhere else. Hobby Lobby is her grim reality. She saved this shop from closure, proving to 'corporate' that she could make it meet the targets.
'Corporate' is unseen and uncaring, indifferent to real people. Hunter symbolizes the faceless ownership with the obnoxious television channel that unpredictably alternates between two guys offering static brain-dead comments on Hobby Lobby merchandise and gruesome closeups of surgeries and medical procedures. ("Something's wrong with the channels," Pauline comments.)
Stepbrothers Leroy and Alex could hardly be more different. Leroy, older, knows he's indispensable to the store operation, and he's on foul-tempered boil most of the time. He wears t-shirts with crudely offensive logos under the obligatory Hobby Lobby vest, and his avowed motivation much of the time is simply to make others uncomfortable. Tyler Smith's directness and confrontational style as Leroy play strongly against Green's reticence as Will.
Leroy is fiercely protective of introverted stebrother Alex, a teenaged lost soul. Michael Roberts conveys Alex's sensitivity and his jumpy intensity in a performance of impressive maturity.
The Playhouse's cellar theatre is a relatively shallow thrust space, which can make for tricky blocking. It's relatively wide, with rows and ranks of six or seven seats to left and right of the playing area. Those of us seated on either side rather than in the much longer central section occasionally had a satisfyingly intimate view of the action -- for example, when Leroy thrust menacingly into Will's face, we on stage right had almost the same view as shown in the performance photo. Director Omar Leos usually kept his cast in appropriate motion, but there were times when we sidelings had less satisfying participation. Plant your characters facing one another at the same depth on the area closest to bulk of the audience, in positions resembling those of a duel on a one-street Western town, and you're going to exclude a portion of your audience. A confrontation between Will and Leroy staged this way left some of us with a view of Will's back and rear completely blocking his interlocutor for what seemed to be an eternity. The words were there, of course, but without at least one face to accompany them they lost their impact.
From time to time Hunter's play shows us Will isolated and hungry in prayer, isolated in an eerie orange cone of light. The final moments of A Bright New Boise provide a similar almost out-of-body experience, as the playwright and director seem to offer us variations on an outcome, so that we don't know if we're seeing Will's isolation, a wished-for positive outcome or a final moment of ultimate despair. "Now - now - NOW!" has become Will's perpetually unfulfilled plea, and the enigmatic ending moments leave us puzzled and disturbed.
Just like Will.
December 29 - January 21, 2017
San Pedro Park
800 W Ashby Place
San Antonio, TX, 78212
“A Bright New Boise” opens Dec. 29, 2017. It can be seen at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 21, 2018 in the Cellar Theater of The Playhouse San Antonio, San Pedro at Ashby.
Tickets range from $20 to $35 and are available by calling 210-733-7258 or at theplayhousesa.org.