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Theatre in Review: Lewiston/Clarkston (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Heidi Armbruster. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Lewiston and Clarkston may be twin cities in Idaho and Washington State, but, as rendered by playwright Samuel D. Hunter, they make for unequally compelling dramas. Together, they form an unusually ambitious project: two plays in a single evening, each running ninety minutes, separated by a dinner break, with meals available for purchase in advance. (Try the chicken; you can also bring your own food.) The presentation has been conceived as a communal experiment: The Rattlestick interior has been stripped back to raw space, with the audience, which numbers about fifty, seated around the playing area in cafeteria-style chairs. The mid-evening meal is shared at long tables. Clearly, the message is, We're all in this together.

Which, in a nutshell, is the playwright's vision. The two cities of the titles are, of course, named after Lewis and Clark, the fabled explorers who braved the American wilderness all the way to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, paving the way for the continental United States. "Paving" is the right word: In Lewiston/Clarkston, that epic, heroic journey has dead-ended in a modern Idaho defined by ugly subdivisions, opioid addiction, big-box stores, and a scarcity of good jobs. The towns may be named for American heroes -- although their reputations are subjected to withering analysis here -- but the people in them are lost, lonely, and given to wondering if their lives are worth a wooden nickel. Where many in these Disunited States look at such patches of flyover country as petri dishes of prejudice and ignorance, Hunter casts a compassionate eye, finding richly complex characters struggling against crippling circumstances.

Still, the evening gets off to a halting start. Lewiston throws together Alice, a tough, independent widow in her seventies (and, according to family lore, a descendant of Meriwether Lewis), with Connor, her sort-of roommate, sort-of friend, and sort-of caretaker. Once a butcher at the nearby meatpacking plant, he is a victim of the economic downturn and now gets by with a part-time position at Walgreen's. In truth, he is keeping both of them afloat: Alice's only obvious source of income is a rather bedraggled fireworks stand. (Connor has tried a little bit of marketing pizzazz, putting in front of each item a card offering a description like "audacious showers of light," an effort that earns some testy glares from Alice.) In any case, Alice's fortunes are scheduled to turn around: What is left of her little farm is right between two encroaching housing developments, and a buyout offer is on the table. She is holding out for a better deal, but plans to capitulate, and soon.

However, Alice's life is upended by the arrival of Marnie, her estranged granddaughter, once a successful urban farmer in Seattle and now a lost soul with an Idaho-sized chip on her shoulder. She pitches a tent in the yard and promptly establishes herself as a constant irritant. She has come back to claim the family property, to which she really has no claim; she also bears an extensive list of grievances against Alice, the biggest of which is the death, apparently by suicide, of Catherine, her mother and Alice's daughter. (Catherine drowned herself in the Pacific, having followed the original Lewis and Clark trail from beginning to end; her voice, recorded on her journey, haunts the action.)

To his credit, Hunter makes no special case for Marnie, whose childhood was severely damaged by the adults around her, but who can be entitled and a know-it-all; she also arrives dragging a trail of her own bad decisions. She and Connor have several dust-ups -- over eating meat, evolution, and his closeted sexuality -- and he responds in kind, more than once cutting her down to size. But Marnie has authentic reasons for being angry, few of which are explored in sufficient detail. Lewiston tries to cram too much -- mental illness, death, broken relationships, surprise pregnancies, and much more -- into ninety minutes, with awkward results. The revelations keep coming, but the family's complicated history doesn't come into focus and the dramatic pieces don't fit together; it doesn't help that the action ends on a thoroughly unresolved note.

The director, Davis McCallum, does fine work with two thirds of the cast. Kristin Griffith -- her face pointed ever so slightly above the horizon line, as if to match the upward turn of her nose, her startlingly clear eyes becoming ever so slightly veiled when truths too ugly for comment are spoken -- has the bearing of a pioneer woman inexplicably dropped into the overbuilt landscape of today. She digs into her terse dialogue, hinting at losses for which there are no words and she listens intently to Marnie's accusations, as if testing to see how much pain she can accommodate. It's a fine, understated performance. Arnie Burton, as Connor -- looking windbeaten and sunburned and wearing a short-sleeved shirt and hat that add ten years to his age -- enlivens each of his scenes, whether furiously consigning Marnie to the ranks of spoiled brats; poignantly recalling the father who, despite years of proximity, never really knew him; or, at long last, scaling the invisible wall between him and Alice, insisting that they acknowledge what they have meant to each other. If Leah Karpel leans too heavily on Marnie's most grating qualities, it is probably because the character is a series of gestures that don't gel into a coherent portrait.

There is potent dramatic material in Lewiston, but I'm guessing that it needs more expansive telling to tease it all out. Of course, then it wouldn't be a suitable companion piece for Clarkston, but the good news is the latter play is more than strong enough to stand on its own. Once again, one of the characters is a descendant of the town's namesake, and the action includes a pilgrimage following the route of the original expedition. In this case, it is Jake, in his early twenties, who is distantly related to William Clark, although his last name is Baumgartner-Pepperdine. He is just about the last person one would expect to see working as a stock clerk on the night shift in a Costco, being a rich kid who graduated from Bennington with a degree in postcolonial gender studies. But, retracing the steps of his ancestor, he has stopped off in Clarkston to earn a little money. On the first night of the job, it comes out that he has Huntington's disease and is looking at a loss of his motor functions and almost-certain death before he is thirty.

Jake's cross-country trip is an impulsive attempt at finding a bit of peace; he skipped out of his family's home without telling his parents. Obviously, stock clerk is not the ideal position for someone who occasionally experiences muscle spasms and loss of control, but Chris, his coworker, reluctantly agrees to cover for him. When Jake admits to being gay, Chris has a strangely stunned reaction, before quickly covering and insisting that it doesn't matter.

In fact, Chris is gay, too, and living half in, half out of the closet. Much of Clarkston follows the slow, stumbling process by which the two men come together in a singular friendship. An early sexual encounter proves to be a nonstarter for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that Jake isn't over the boyfriend who recently dumped him. (The young man wasn't prepared to see Jake through to the end.) But Chris has plenty of troubles, too, and, lacking all the advantages of Jake's life, nevertheless has his eye on a place at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. In scenes featuring some of Hunter's loveliest writing, these two loners, profoundly damaged by life, gradually draw together, opening up in ways that perhaps neither has done before. Then the playwright, as if borrowing some of the incendiary devices sold by Alice in Lewiston, tosses into the mix Trisha, Chris' ferociously needy and manipulative mother. Chris has cut Trisha, a meth addict, out of his life until she gets sober, but she comes knocking, spreading rancor and chaos in her wake; she is less than thrilled by Jake's presence, as she needs to have Chris all to herself. As played by Heidi Armbruster, with a wild-eyed look and an expression poised right on the line between sweetness and all-devouring fury, Trisha is a terrifying creature; her final, decisive confrontation with Chris, an outpouring of love and desperation and fury that sends the young man falling to the ground, contains a savagery that one doesn't necessarily associate with this fine writer.

All three performers excel under McCallum's pinpoint direction. Noah Robbins -- short and scrawny, with a hooded gaze of disappointment -- is fine as Jake, who is restlessly looking for something like contentment before it is too late, and Edmund Donovan effortlessly captures Chris' physical and emotional awkwardness, his deep-seated yearning to make something normal out of his sordid beginnings. It helps enormously that Clarkston has an ending that, for all its ambiguities, offers at least the possibility of peace for some of the characters.

One way of describing the production design would be "epic minimalism." Dane Laffrey, the set designer, has stripped the room bare; his contribution is largely to create open spaces for each play; Stacey Derosier's lighting establishes different looks for each. (Most of Lewiston unfolds during the day, while much of Clarkston takes place at night.) Jessica Wegener Shay's costumes show a keen understanding of the characters and their circumstances. Fitz Patton's sound design includes the extensive voiceover sequences in Lewiston and such effects as fireworks, truck engines, warning buzzers, and a mechanical lift.

Even marked by a certain up-and-down quality, Lewiston/Clarkston is filled with good performances, and Hunter's ability to mine drama out the lives and conditions of his corner of the Northwest remains unique. And, more than most of his contemporaries, he has the ability to zero in on the dissatisfaction of working-class characters for whom the American dream has turned out to be a shabby piece of prefab goods. He remains one of the theatre's essential voices. -- David Barbour

(14 November 2018)

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