Michael L. Quintos
To those familiar with the exceptional work of award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter, you have no doubt noticed that the accomplished wordsmith truly has a soft spot for writing intriguing, tortured, and emotionally-damaged everyday people that feel completely real and relatable despite being caught in some rather challenging, highly melodramatic circumstances. These full-bodied characters were beautifully displayed in his beautiful plays REST (2014) and the Drama Desk/Lucille Lortel award-winning THE WHALE (2013), both of which were recently produced in superb fashion at Orange County's South Coast Repertory.
But it is with his earlier off-Broadway play A BRIGHT NEW BOISE that the Idaho-bred writer first truly got significant notices for creating such complex, compelling characters, which later culminated in his receiving of the distinguished Obie Award for playwriting in 2011. Full of Hunter's amusingly observant and stirringly poignant portraits of ordinary people in extraordinary flux, this early-career play from his repertoire also happens to be the latest terrific production currently in performance at Orange County's Ovation-winning Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills through October 25.
Like his other Idaho-set plays, Hunter's A BRIGHT NEW BOISE similarly focuses an empathetic spotlight on characters wracked with debilitating inner turmoil. In this case, the character most in need of serious therapy—or, at the very least, an Oprah-sized hug and a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear—is timid, conservatively-dressed Will (Casey Long) who, at the start of the play, is interviewing for a menial part-time position at the local Hobby Lobby store, the real-life discount arts-and-crafts retail chain that recently found itself scrutinized in the national media for its Christianity-affiliated corporate practices.
Right from the start, one can sense that there's something a bit off about the guy—that he's feeling troubled, maybe lost.... perhaps even a bit broken. Remarkably, though noticeably uneasy, Will is still hired on the spot by the hilariously cantankerous, cuss-spouting store manager Pauline (scene-stealing Karen Jean Olds), whose only corporate-dictated mandate seems to hinge solely on Will's assurance that he complies with the company founder's Christian values and, of course, to ditch any thoughts of unionizing. Without hesitation, Will accepts the terms and, yes, the position.
Getting the job is a bit of a lucky break for Will, considering what he has suffered through and what his short term goals are for being at this seemingly dead end job. As suspected, there is much, much more to Will beneath that cloud of secrets only hinted at in his bashful mannerisms.
We soon find out that the middle-aged, super religious Will—newly escaped to Boise from an undisclosed location—came with an ulterior motive for securing a job at this particular Hobby Lobby all along: to meet and to connect with a teen co-worker named Alex (perfectly angsty Andrew Guerrero), who—surprise!—happens to be Will's long lost biological son. In a painfully awkward, rather abrupt confession, Will claims that he and Alex's young bio-mother reluctantly gave infant Alex up for adoption years before.
The out-of-the-blue news, naturally, comes as a shock to poor, already vulnerable Alex, who himself quickly admits to this new stranger that he is afflicted with debilitating anxiety and bouts of panic attacks. Though he doesn't trust Will's declaration in the onset, Alex's curiosity is nonetheless piqued—even as he is overcome with anger about the news.
"You gave me to assholes!" Alex bellows to Will about his adoptive parents John and Cindy. "[They] said my dad was a child-beating neo-Nazi."
Well... far from it. Besides the revelation that Will fathered a baby that eventually grew up to be Alex, a bit of internet Google-ing from Alex's feisty, over-protective foster brother Leroy (David Christian Vera) helps expose additional info about the Hobby Lobby's mysterious new employee. Already weary of Will's intentions toward the fragile Alex, Leroy—a perpetually pissed-off budding anarchist-slash-artist, who enjoys making customers and Will uncomfortable—is even more enraged once he digs up a few more alarming details.
That previous life Will is running away from? Well, it turns out that (*spoiler alert*) Will used to be a member or an ultra-religious, mega-doomsday cult that gained some notoriety in the press for all sorts of out-there beliefs, which may or may not have contributed to the death of a young parishioner. Will, according to Leroy's "research," was essentially the "number 2" guy in the organization, even though Will has sworn to the contrary with the authorities and the nosey press. Will obviously ran away to Boise hoping for some anonymity and a life reboot.
But Will perseveres, still desperate to form a connection with Alex—even going so far as to try to like the things Alex enjoys (which includes music and poetry). In the meantime, Will is sadly living out of his car and sneaking into the break room after-hours to steal the store's weak internet connection so he can continue writing his online blog stories about Armageddon—his only tie to his previous proclivities which he still somehow considers as his own brand of escapism from the harsh realities of the world he lives in.
Will is so disheartened by his current state on Earth that he actually prays feverishly for the Rapture to arrive and for the wondrous event to wipe it (and him) all clean—not only to start his life with a fresh slate but to also prove to himself—and, by extension, to Alex—that his faith is still worth holding onto despite all the hardships he's had to endure.
It is during these nocturnal hours in the break room that he meets the equally awkward co-worker Anna (Alex Bueno), who often hides out in the quiet of the empty store to read her fantastical novels as her means of escape away from home and her own humdrum livelihood. The two swap cute stories of where and how each of them chooses to hide until the store closes.
In ordinary circumstances, the two seemingly kindred spirits who just shared a meet-cute (albeit a super awkward one) are pretty much perfectly suited romantically (cue the violin strings). But Hunter and the audience can tell right at the get-go that the two of them are just far too broken even for each other.
Directed with thoughtful pacing and natural sensitivity—yet also with a tense air of volatility—by Trevor Biship, Chance Theater's admirable production of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE is an intriguing slice-of-life portrait of people just trying to make the most of what life has handed them. And here, like Band-Aids being yanked swiftly with little warning, each character's inner truths unfold just as rapidly and painfully in much the same way.
As an effective contrast to the heightened drama of the play, Bruce Goodrich has designed a meticulously functional break room set that echoes the purposely drab, commonplace lives of the characters that spend a lot of time there. Surrounding the perimeter of the break room are gray slabs of concrete that form the parking lot just outside the Hobby Lobby, where many a heart-to-heart takes place between the newly reunited father-and-son (and where Will and Alex each have their ugly-cry breakdowns and angry, one-sided shouting matches with non-responsive deities).
Here, in the outdoors amongst the same shades of gray broken up only by the uniformly painted parking lines on the ground, it's neutral territory for the reunited pair, in a way. Both Alex and Will also have different usages for the lampposts that soar high-above the parking lot—the production's not-so-subtle proxies for heavenly guidance that both characters desperately seek (extra special kudos to lighting designer Tim Swiss, sound/video designer Jeff Polunas, and costume designer Christopher Scott Murillo for helping to complete the illusions).
Additionally, more than anything, A BRIGHT NEW BOISE ponders the lengths one goes through to prove the validity of long-held beliefs, often to the detriment of forward momentum and environmental acceptance. Shame and guilt are pretty darn powerful obstacles one must surpass in order to achieve a fulfilling life. As we observe in Will, especially, they are also achingly debilitating.
At the heart of the story is a broken, stilted man whose very faith is tested while literally wading aimlessly in a world hell-bent (so to speak) to snap him back to reality. The play is a great testament to the introspective prowess of Hunter's writing—as well as the incredible actors that have slipped into these characters—in that we as an audience are able to feel empathy for a man whose extreme beliefs and ideas may not necessarily coincide with our own world view.
As tortured Will, Long (who normally appears in the much more chipper role as Chance Theater's Managing Director/Opening Night greeter) gives a stunning performance, providing a great job of balancing the emotional roller coaster of a vulnerable guy engaged in his own tug-of-war between his faith and his ultimate fulfillment and happiness—which apparently may not be able to co-exist without harming or threatening the other. His desperation for any kind of connection (even an initially one-sided one) with Guerrero's exemplary portrait of the equally-tortured Alex is quite heartbreaking. The fear of loneliness both Long and Bueno beautifully infuse into their respective, emotionally crippled characters is also so achingly heartfelt.
And though they both enter scenes mostly for some intermittent respites of comic relief, Vera and Olds also bring outstanding exagerrated drama to their reenactments of the people in our lives who step in to fulfill a specific role normally occupied by people with biological ties with us. Such people who enter our lives—via random circumstances or even dumb luck—often resemble archetypes normally reserved for family (in a way, they become familial proxies themselves). In that sense, sometimes the lady across the way—like foul-mouthed store manager Pauline—can't help but end up being a motherly figure without you even becoming aware of it. In the case of Vera's rule-breaking Leroy, you're handed a big (sometimes meddlesome) brother who's got your back no matter what.
Curiously, A BRIGHT NEW BOISE is described—in marketing language—as a dark comedy. But I humbly disagree. Though there are certainly plenty of moments of odd, eccentric amusements (particularly ones featured overhead in the flat screen monitors), for me, Hunter's play is actually an impactful, emotional, dramatically searing character study of alarmingly relatable people that seemed trapped at rock bottom, either settling for their positions in abject surrender or struggling desperately to pull themselves out—but fail time after time. Things don't get wrapped up in neat little bows as the play slowly unravels to its almost briskly stunted ending. Much like real life, things are left disturbingly in melancholy flux.
My only real gripe about the production is its choice for conducting the play in the round. As stylistically interesting as it is to experience this production in this manner, your reactions to the drama at hand is primarily determined by the position of your seat. I feel that my reserved critic's seat (fortunately) afforded me the luxury of witnessing a lot of specific beats and expressions from actors that my fellow audience members seated way far across on the other side of the "stage" may not have had the same privilege to see (and, perhaps, vice-versa). In a play where mere outward expressions speak volumes, it's a bit disappointing to wonder if you're not getting the whole picture.
Nonetheless, this minor attribute still doesn't take away from the overall raw power of Chance Theater's first-rate production. There is no denying the reach of this play's palpable catharsis of faith and fate, especially given the intimate setting of the theater itself.
Every character seems fearful of facing the reality that they may be settling for their places in the world. It's certainly a universal fear some of us loathe, while others blindly embrace with nary a qualm. It's good to know that whatever belief system each of us subscribes to, ultimately, we all can agree that—above all else—we all deserve even the slightest bit of happiness.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ. Review originally published in OnStage.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's Production of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE continues through October 25, 2015. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.