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Theatre in Review: A Bright New Boise (Signature Theatre Company)

Peter Mark Kendall, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio. Photo: Joan Marcus

Near the end of A Bright New Boise, an ugly disagreement erupts that lays bare a profound division inside American Christianity and, perhaps, the country itself. It's an exchange between Will and Anna, workers at a Hobby Lobby; a pair of outsiders stuck in dead-end jobs, they are drawn to each other instinctively, forming a tentative friendship until the talk turns to God and the breach occurs.

Will, drifting into middle age with nothing but loss to show for it, has fled his upstate Idaho town in the wake of a scandal, involving the death of a young man, that destroyed his evangelical church community. He has come to Boise seeking out Alex, the son he gave up many years earlier. It's a tall order: Now an adolescent, Alex is tense, furiously self-defensive, and given to panic attacks; he loathes his adoptive parents, and he views Will with an equally hostile eye. An attempt at rapprochement, despite one or two promising moments, ends in disaster, only deepening their separation.

Anna, who might be a little interested in Will, senses his abiding sorrow and wants to help. Aware of his stark religious beliefs, centered on the imminency of the Rapture, she invites him to attend her Lutheran church. Her attendance is, at best, desultory, but, as she notes, he might find respite in the congregation's casual, friendly attitude. "It's not all about hell or sin or whatever," she assures him. "It's just a nice community organization." Among the amenities she lists are a food bank, a youth group, and even a real gay couple among the faithful. "Will," she says, trying to coax him away from his paralyzing. polarizing vision of God, "you can just believe in something else!"

Suddenly Will -- until now a gentle, soft-voiced loser -- turns on Anna with unchecked fury, excoriating liberal churches that "believe in nothing," dismissing higher education as "searching in the dark, trying to find meaning in meaninglessness," savaging others "in those fashionable clothes with their fashionable friends" who dismiss people like him as "fanatics and hicks," and climaxing with a vision of purifying hellfire. Unsurprisingly, his rant sends her fleeing, and, once again, he is alone.

It's an astonishing passage, written more than a decade ago, yet up to date in its perception of a contemporary yearning for moral absolutes that scrapes against the surface of a pluralistic society. It's a problem particularly acute in playwright Samuel D. Hunter's Idaho, a place of natural beauty being devoured by urban sprawl, where people get by, only just, working in big-box stores, chain restaurants, or telemarketing offices. In this atmosphere of numbing banality, families are badly frayed, insufficiently supported by churches, schools, and civic organizations; influenced by the American cult of individualism, it's all too easy to become hopelessly adrift. Will's Christianity may be insular and rank with brimstone, but at least it dares to confront the emptiness around him.

So thoroughly has Hunter mapped this terrain in such dramas as The Few, Lewiston/Clarkston, and A Case for the Existence of God that A Bright New Boise, first seen in 2010, feels contrived in comparison: Will manages to track down Alex, get hired at the same workplace, and pursues a father-son relationship on the job; really, what are the chances? (Will's intentions quickly become common knowledge among his co-workers; having applied for employment under false pretenses, wouldn't he get summarily fired?) If the play's insights into working-class America put Hunter on the map, it also features a certain carelessness about plotting. Then again, Will's halting attempts at connecting with others is heartbreaking to see; the other characters are sharply, engagingly drawn; and there is the overpowering irony of this drama faith and identity playing out under the aegis of a business notorious for its religiosity and political meddling. (Among other things, Hobby Lobby sued the government, claiming that the ACA mandate to provide health insurance including contraceptives and the morning after pill was a violation of the owners' religious freedom. It also furnished the Museum of the Bible, which it sponsored, with thousands of artifacts looted from Iraq.)

Under Oliver Butler's direction, which doesn't miss a nuance, a fine cast brings Hunter's gallery of lost souls to strong, highly individual life. Peter Mark Kendall's quiet manner and tentative gestures are ideal for Will, who half-expects the most casual interaction to end in rejection; painfully aware of his mediocrity, he yearns for transcendence at any price. Ignacio Diaz-Silverio is equally fine as Alex, a sensitive, brutally misunderstood youth trapped behind a carapace of anger; he is also an accomplished liar, given to making suicide threats. Their halting attempt at finding some sort of understanding provides the play with its powerful spine.

The rest of the cast excels as well, including Anna Baryshnikov as the daft, rudderless Anna, bouncing from one lousy job to another; Eva Kaminsky, brusque and businesslike as Pauline, the foul-mouthed manager who, having pulled the store from the brink of ruin, doesn't tolerate personal dramas; and Angus O'Brien as Leroy, Alex's brother by adoption, a budding artist and professional provocateur -- check out that T-shirt adorned with an F-bomb -- who guards his sibling with a tigerish devotion.

Wilson Chin's set design is a photorealistic rendering of a sterile employee lunchroom, the sort of neatly appointed space where hope expires. It is lit with careful attention to detail by Jen Schriever, especially in the nighttime scenes, when much of the illumination is provided by indirect sources likes flashlights and computer screens. April M. Hickman's costumes are filled with small, yet telling, details that define each character. Stefania Bulbarella's projection design includes the training video that runs endlessly, except when, thanks to crossed signals, it is mysteriously pre-empted by footage of a medical operation. Christopher Darbassie provides such key sound effects as traffic noises, the store's PA system, and the low-level drone of an employee training video.

The most melancholy sound coming from the stage at the Signature, however, is the constantly repeatedly word, "Now," as Will begs God for an intervention that will heal his wounds and bring order to a cruel, chaotic world. You can intuit that there is something terribly wrong with a religion that prizes doctrinal certainty over love, but you can't help feeling the pain at the root of it. "Hell is all around us," says Alex in a moment of desperation, a sentiment with which Will might unhappily agree. But what do you do when the God to whom you have given your soul's allegiance remains silent? --David Barbour

(21 February 2023)

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