A great big bear of a man stands alone at night in a deserted Boise, Idaho parking lot and repeats and repeats a single word like a cry to heaven. “Now. Now. Now.” The “now” Will is begging for is the moment in which the “dead in Christ” and those who are still alive will be “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord”—in other words, The Rapture. In the meantime, the Boise newcomer has taken a part-time job at the local Hobby Lobby superstore, the better to get to know teenage cashier Alex, the son he gave up for adoption eighteen years ago.

 If this sounds like the basis for a heartwarming father-son reunion story with an uplifting religious bent, think again. Will and Alex are characters in Samuel D. Hunter’s raw, gritty Obie-winning drama A Bright New Boise, now getting its West Coast Premiere at (where else but) L.A. edgiest of cutting-edge theater companies, Rogue Machine Theatre.

As eager as Will (Matthew Elkins) is to bond with Alex (Erik Odom), his wish is easier said than done, the sullen teen loner having little or no interest in forging a relationship with the man who left him for nearly two decades in the foster care of a couple of drunks.

Will has another reason for moving south to Boise, and that is to escape from the scandal surrounding the now disbanded New Life Fellowship Church, of which he was a member, and whose pastor now sits in a jail cell following the suspicious death of a teenage parishioner.

 It’s no wonder, then, that Will omits any reference to this when applying for a job with Hobby Lobby manager Pauline (Betsy Zajko), who hires him as a cashier based on his work experience and his willingness to accept a 38-hours-per-week “part-time” job at $7.25 per hour.

In addition to Will and Alex, this Hobby Lobby is staffed by the painfully shy Anna (Heather L. Tyler), who hides out in the store until late at night reading novels she hopes won’t end happily, and by Alex’s older brother/protector Leroy (Trevor Peterson), who’s so good at his job in the art supplies department that he can afford to wear self-designed t-shirts with words like “Fuck” and “Cunt” emblazoned on them, the better to shock Boise conservatives.

 The more we get to know these five characters, the clearer it becomes that playwright Hunter isn’t aiming for a Movie Of The Week happy ending for all concerned. Alex’s panic attacks are truly frightening, Anna’s lack of social skills borders on the pathological, Pauline’s mouth appears to have been borrowed from a stevedore, and Leroy, as devotedly protective as he is to Alex, is more than a bit of a loose cannon.

It would be easy to see A Bright New Boise as an indictment of religious fanaticism told in somewhat dark comedic terms, but Hunter’s characters are far too rich and complex for that. Alex is a deeply damaged youth, who insists on his right to say “Stop!” whenever one of Will’s questions gets even the least bit personal (or the second Will says anything he finds the least bit boring), and who punctuates their conversations with repeated threats to kill himself. There’s something innately sad about a young woman like Anna whose greatest pleasure and solace is to hide out late at night in a Hobby Lobby breakroom reading stories that she wants to end badly. Pauline seems to have no life outside the store she manages like a tigress, having saved it virtually single-handedly from corporate-mandated closure. Leroy may pride himself on being a “confrontational artist” bent on shocking the establishment, but in his protective defense of his younger brother, he may just be the play’s most well-adjusted character. As for Will, the playwright himself puts it best when he states, “There’s something so fascinating about people for whom the most hopeful thing in their lives is the world coming to an end.” It’s that very poignancy that makes A Bright New Boise so much more than the bleak slice-of-life it might otherwise end up being.

 Rogue Machine Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn once again elicits the kind of pitch-perfect performances that have marked such previous productions as Bhutan, Blackbird, The New Electric Ballroom, Small Engine Repair, and Where The Great Ones Run, all of which have won Scenies for their acting ensembles, and A Bright New Boise looks to be no exception.

Elkins is superb as the profoundly troubled Will, who finds that his greatest passion (his faith) may be the biggest stumbling block in connecting with a son who wants nothing to do with him. Tyler seems visually to shrink inside Anna’s mousy frame, giving us an absolutely real young woman we both sympathize with and pity, and never more so than in a confrontation with Will that gives us Elkins at his most frighteningly out of control. Rogue Machine secret weapon Zajko is once again sensational, this time as a woman whose life is as devoted to her store as Will’s is to his Lord and Savior, and don’t you dare do anything to disturb what she’s created. As Leroy, a dynamic, sexy Peterson has star written all over him (think Brad Pitt circa Thelma And Louise)—another terrific young talent from USC’s School Of Drama. Finally, making what should be remembered as one of the most exciting L.A. theater debuts of the year is the extraordinary Odom, digging deep indeed to reveal all of Alex’s anger and vulnerability and fear and need in one lollapalooza of a performance.

As Hobby Lobby Guys #1 and 2, a videotaped Ron Bottitta and Rob Dodd appear frequently on the TV screen in scenic designer David Mauer’s appropriately stark breakroom set, that is when grainy medical channel images of various grisly surgeries aren’t interfering with the in-store video feed. (You’d hardly recognize Theatre/Theater’s chameleon-like smaller space as the same one that housed a very different breakroom for Blackbird, or New Electric Ballroom’s dingy, rundown Irish kitchen, Mauer sharing design kudos with properties whiz Hazel Kuang.) Corwin Evan’s excellent projection design takes us in-and-outside Hobby Lobby in a jiff, and he gets additional kudos for that in-house video. Leigh Allen adds yet another fine, nuanced lighting design to her increasingly long résumé. Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s as always stunning sound design sets an ominous, otherworldly mood from the get-go. Lauren Tyler’s costumes do precisely what they should, telegraphing to us who these people are even before they speak.

Mauer is technical director, Daniel Jordan Booth and Michael Frank are assistant directors, and Amanda Mauer is production manager. Ramon Valdez is stage manager. Laura Hill is managing director.

A Bright New Boise ends Rogue Machine’s 2012 season with further proof that it is one of L.A.’s most exciting, risk-taking, cutting-edge theater companies. Boise may bill itself as “one of America’s most livable and likable cities,” but you’d hardly know it from Samuel D. Hunter’s play bearing its name. Still, thanks to playwright and Rogue Machine, it’s a place well worth visiting for a couple hours in A Bright New Boise.

Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 22, 2012
Photos: John Flynn

Comments are closed.