A man undergoing a crisis of faith attempts to reconnect with the teenage son he gave up for adoption eighteen years ago in Samuel D. Hunter’s dark, gritty tragicomedy A Bright New Boise, now getting an electric Orange County production at Chance Theater.
Casey Long stars as Will, whom we first glimpse standing alone at night in a deserted Boise, Idaho parking lot and repeating 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 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 his teenage cashier son Alex (Andrew Guerrero).
As eager as Will is for some father-son bonding, his wish is easier said than done, sullen loner Alex 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.
Not surprisingly, Will omits any reference to his previous church affiliation when applying for a job with Hobby Lobby manager Pauline (Karen Jean Olds), who hires him as a cashier based on his work experience and his willingness to accept a 38-hours-per-week “part-time” position at $7.25 per hour.
In addition to Will and Alex, this Hobby Lobby is staffed by the painfully shy Anna (Alex Bueno), 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 (David Christian Vera), 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 necessarily aiming for a Movie Of The Week happy ending for all concerned. Alex’s sudden panic attacks, Anna’s embarrassing lack of social skills, and Pauline’s stevedore’s mouth make them the farthest thing from cookie-cutter characters, and Leroy, as devotedly protective as he is to Alex, is more than a bit of a loose cannon.
It would be easy to peg A Bright New Boise as an indictment of religious fanaticism told in 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 break room 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.
Under Trevor Biship’s incisive direction, leading man Long now adds A Bright New Boise’s Will to his list of memorable Chance Theater credits (star turns in Passion Play, Nerve, and Talk About The Passion are just three of them). As someone whose faith may be the biggest stumbling block in connecting with a son who wants nothing to do with him, Long’s richly layered performance may well be his finest work to date.
A pair of recent South Coast Repertory Intensive Program grads make memorable Chance Theater Debuts in A Bright New Boise, Guerrero revealing a heartbreakingly vulnerable Alex beneath the teen’s surface of surly bravado, while Vera proves a dynamic stage presence as Alex’s defiantly aggressive yet deeply nurturing older brother.
Chance Theater treasure Bueno is a quirky delight as Anna, whom we both sympathize with and pity, and never more so than in a confrontation with Will at his most frighteningly out of control
Last but not least, first-time Chancie Olds steals every scene she’s in as the fabulously foul-mouthed Pauline, a woman whose life is as devoted to her store as Will’s is to his Lord & Savior, and don’t you dare do anything to disturb what she’s created.
Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich has transformed the Chance’s larger space into Hobby Lobby’s sterile yet minutely detailed break room (pitch-perfect props by Elizabeth Gibson), the parking-lot spaces and lampposts surrounding it making for a particularly nifty added touch. Tim Swiss’s terrific lighting design adds fluorescent starkness to the break room and nighttime shadows and light to parking lot scenes. Christopher Scott Murillo’s costumes reveal both characters’ personal choices and the requirements of their Hobby Lobby jobs. Jeff Polunas does double duty, his sound design integrating bits of Villa Lobos with the whir of nighttime traffic and buzzing of crickets while his video design features thankfully fuzzy operating room footage that keeps intruding on videotaped Hobby Lobby talking heads Robert Foran and Will Jorge.
Sarah K. Ormsby is production stage manager. Jocelyn L. Buckner is dramaturg. Additional program credits go to Bebe Herrera (rehearsal stage manager), Devon Swiger (assistant sound/video designer), and Adam Ramirez (assistant costume designer). Tod & Linda White are executive producers.
In less gifted hands than those of Samuel D. Hunter, A Bright New Boise might have made for a heartwarming but trite father-son reunion story with an uplifting religious bent.
Fortunately, the Obie-winning playwright has something a good deal darker and more twisted in mind, yet with occasional glimpses of hope and grace.
Though Boise, Idaho, would rank low on my list of must-see American cities, it’s a place well worth visiting in A Bright New Boise, particularly as staged to refreshingly comedic and compellingly dramatic effect at the Chance.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
October 3, 2105
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studiio