The second play of Samuel D. Hunter’s residency at Signature Theatre is the first New York revival of his 2011 Obie Award winning A Bright New Boise, not seen by too many people in its short schedule run at The Wild Project in the fall of 2010. Oliver Butler’s production is a taut drama with rising tensions throughout until the climax. At first appearing to be a workplace drama set in big box store breakroom, the play turns out to be a meditation on faith, relationships and expectations. The ensemble cast is excellent and makes this a riveting piece of theater. The title is ironic in that all of the characters are going through crises and do not see the promise of a new world, in fact, they are mostly pessimistic about the future.
Evangelical Christian Will has moved from northern Idaho to Boise for two reasons: after a scandalous incident at his church which put his pastor in prison and from which he was exonerated, he wants to make a fresh start in a place where no one knows him. However, he has also taken a minimum wage job at the local Hobby Lobby craft store in order to reconnect with his 17-year-old son Alex who was put up for adoption by his girlfriend’s parent and who knows nothing about him. Will speaks hesitantly as though he has been traumatized and says as little as possible except when an opening allows him to proselytize.
The denizens of the Hobby Lobby would be comic if they all did not seem to be suffering some inner turmoil. Alex who wants to be a musician and a composer has anxiety attacks that are almost life threatening. His older brother Leroy, getting a Masters in Fine Arts degree at the local university, has anger management issues and wears rude tee-shirts of his own making to confront people with their hypocrisies. Manager Pauline, who has turned chaos into order when she took over the running of the store which seems to be continually understaffed, is always harried, expecting the worst at any moment. The only other employee we meet is Anna, who has been fired from every job she has ever held until now, and does not get along with her father though she is still living at home.
Despite the disbanding of Will’s church, he doesn’t seem to have lost his faith and is still awaiting The Rapture. When given an opportunity, he attempts to turn the conversation with Alex and Anna to this topic. However, Alex is very defensive and standoffish of a man claiming to be his father who he had never heard from before. His overprotective brother who has researched Will is always getting in the way of their becoming close. Anna seems much confused about what she wants though she appears to be searching through reading and attending a local Lutheran church. The longer Will works at the Hobby Lobby, the more complicated things seem to become.
Wilson Chin’s setting for the Hobby Lobby breakroom is a marvel of realism with its grey cabinets and matching chairs and tables. The appliances and vending machines all do what they are supposed to. The large screen television found high up on the wall has a hilarious infomercial for the workers, but is constantly being preempted by a medical documentary which is frightening in its specificity (projection and video design by Stefania Bulbarella.) Aside from Leroy’s in-your-face slogan tee shirts, April M. Hickman’s costume design is pitch-perfect for these minimum wage workers. Both the lighting by Jen Schriever and the sound design by Christopher Darbassie add immeasurably to the ambiance of the workplace setting.
Director Butler gets the most out of each actor in very specific roles. As the traumatized Will, Peter Mark Kendall is excellent as a man suffering an inner and unexpressed turmoil. Ignacio Diaz-Silverio as the 17-year-old high school student captures both the negativity of modern youth as well as his particular emotional and medical situation. As his older brother Leroy, Angus O’Brien is a time bomb waiting to go off as he swings from passive to aggressive and back again. Eva Kaminsky is perfect as the harried manager who has seen it all and is one step away from a nervous breakdown – like most of her employees. As Anna, the only female employee that we meet, Anna Baryshnikov is sweet as a young woman who has not found her place in this world and prefers to hide in the breakroom than deal with her problems.
Since the first production of A Bright New Boise, Hunter has become one of our most prolific playwrights with his cycle of plays about working class people in his native Idaho including The Whale, Pocatello, The Few, The Healing, The Harvest, Lewiston/Clarkson, Greater Clements, and A Case for the Existence of God. His early play, A Bright New Boise has stood the test of time and proves to be spellbinding theater as it moves to its inevitable conclusion. It also captures something special about how we are all searching in a confused and mixed up world.
A Bright New Boise (through March 12, 2023)
Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.SignatureTheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission