BWW Review: N.E. Premiere A BRIGHT NEW BOISE
A Bright New Boise
Written by Samuel D. Hunter, Direction & Scenic Design by David J. Miller, Costume Design by Fabian Aguilar, Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, Sound Design by J Jumbelic; Production Stage Manager, Katie Humbert
CAST (in order of appearance): Victor Shopov, Janelle Mills, Zach Winston, Dakota Shepard, David Lutheran
Performances through October 20 by Zeitgeist Stage Company in the Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.ZeitgeistStage.com
Zeitgeist Stage Company consistently produces theatre that challenges its audience to think and venture outside its comfort zone. Long before the individual stories of the characters become known to us in A Bright New Boise, there is some evidence that the play's setting in the Hobby Lobby in Idaho's capitol city has relevance to what we are about to witness. From the store's website, the Statement of Purpose reads: "Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles." What better place could there be for a disgraced evangelical Christian to start over, find employment, and seek salvation?
Artistic Director David J. Miller was intrigued by the 2011 Obie Award-winning play by Samuel D. Hunter when he read the review in The New York Times two years ago. He struggled with finding a marketing hook because of its diverse array of themes including religious scandal, father/son relationships, spirituality, and big box retailing. However, audiences can connect with Hunter's characters who represent a segment of the population that is often neglected. Although they are employed, they have few resources, limited goals, and they may be part of the so-called 99%. Each struggles to put one foot in front of the other everyday while wandering through a haze of existential angst.
The staff break room of the craft store, as designed by Miller, is a bleak space with fluorescent lighting, banged-up lockers, a pair of card tables surrounded by folding chairs, and a counter with a sink, cabinets, and a microwave oven. The only modern item is a wall-mounted flat screen television which alternately shows employee training videos or disgusting medical procedures. Don't ask. Anyway, this is where the employees hang out during their breaks and sometimes after hours, and it is an apt metaphor for their dreary lives.
Now, if that doesn't exactly sound like a laugh riot, be assured that there is a vein of humor to help offset the fire and brimstone. The humor stems primarily from the characters' own humanity, more so than from the situations they find themselves in. Will (Victor Shopov) is hiding from his past as he tries to make a fresh start during his interview with the store manager, Pauline (Janelle Mills). She takes her job seriously and herself more seriously, and watches over her employees like Mother Goose keeping her ducks in a row. Not long after he is hired, Will drops a bomb that upsets her ordered world, causing repercussions that are felt throughout the rest of the play.
Alex (Zach Winston) is a teenage cashier who does a good job on the floor, but clearly has issues. Plugged into his ipod and trying to ignore Will's attempts at conversation, Alex's world is flipped upside down when Will blurts out that he is the boy's father. Alex has the first of many anxiety attacks before he starts to process this information and gradually becomes more receptive to learning what Will has to share with him. However, his big brother Leroy (David Lutheran), also an employee at Hobby Lobby, is less trusting of Will and does his best to make him feel uncomfortable. Leroy learns Will's back story, about his involvement with an Evangelical church scandal in a town "up north," and outs him to Alex.
The one person who seems friendly, albeit a bit of a ditz, is Anna (Dakota Shepard). She finds her escape from an oppressive home life by reading and, when she and Will meet while hiding out in the break room after hours, Anna is impressed by the fact that he is writing an online book. Eventually, Will discloses that the subject matter of his blog is the Rapture and his belief that there has to be something better than earthly life. Despite everything that happened with his former church, each time that he is asked, he insists that he still believes in God.
Will's belief in God, Pauline's strict adherence to order, Leroy's rebelliousness, and Anna's fascination with morbidity and death are their ways of whistling past the graveyard, as it were. Whether owing to his youth or the traumatic experiences of his childhood, only Alex seems incapable of finding something to grasp onto that can tether him. When he can't take it any longer, Hunter chooses Alex to be his mouthpiece, the one who finally gives voice to the existential angst that hovers over all of them.
Each member of the ensemble succeeds in tapping into their character's underlying motivation. Leroy is menacing on the outside, but Lutheran brings out his big heart, especially in his scenes with Winston. The latter inhabits the sullen, manipulative aspects of the disturbed teen and authentically conveys the boy's massive anxiety. As played by Shepard, Anna is the most sympathetic character. She is constantly apologizing and bumbling in her efforts to befriend Will, but she is obviously lonely and quietly despairing of having nothing to believe in. While proclaiming to the others that what people believe doesn't matter, Mills makes it clear that Pauline worships at the altar of order and control and has no room in her life for messes.
Shopov is the soul of A Bright New Boise and it is both exhilarating and exhausting to view his performance. His range is showcased as his character transforms from the new guy trying to fly beneath the radar to the religious zealot desperately seeking his salvation. His social awkwardness in his scenes with Shepard is realistic, as is his frustration when searching for the right thing to say to connect with Alex. Many times I've seen Shopov skillfully playing confident or cocky roles, but Will is complicated and Shopov masterfully reveals each layer as if he were deftly peeling an onion. He appears spent at the conclusion of the play as if he has held nothing back.
The title of the play belies the bleak existence of the characters, but it implies that there is hope for a new day even in the dark hours. That may be the hook that Director Miller can use to promote A Bright New Boise to his audience because we all want to know that something good might be coming around the corner or even down from the heavens. We all want to believe in something.