BWW Reviews: 2nd Story Theatre's Perfect Ensemble Keeps the Faith in A BRIGHT NEW BOISE
An arguably wise person once told me there are four major issues that can potentially ruin any relationship. They are, "money, religion, sex and family." Hard to argue with that. For the moment, let's take out three and just focus on one of those issues: religion. It's a topic that can be thorny at best and downright destructive at worst. It can lead people to violent extremes but also guide them to extreme peace and tranquility. And it's the issue at the heart of a funny, moving and thought-provoking play called A Bright New Boise, currently playing in the Downstage space at 2nd Story Theatre in Warren.
Samuel D. Hunter's play takes place in and around a Hobby Lobby store in the titular city. Primarily, the action happens in the store's breakroom, where employees lounge, eat lunch, relax, watch educational videos and, in this play, hang out late at night when the store is closed. It's here that we meet Will, a new hire who has just moved into town from "up north." There are two important things to note about Will: he is there to reunite with his son, put up for adoption at a very young age by grandparents, and he recently left the congregation of a fundamentalist church (perhaps more of a cult, really) which was rocked by a scandal that may or may not have involved Will.
Hunter has clearly spent some time working at these kinds of retail establishments. He paints a brilliant and flawlessly accurate picture of the days in the lives of these low-wage earners who are just trying to squeak by as best they can. Each character has his or her own quirks and eccentricities, they are all unique individuals in their own way. Hunter doesn't just make them shallow eccentrics, though. He gives them an inner life as well, with depth and layers. They are people that we want to get to know better and people we can care about and root for in one way or another.
Through his characters, Hunter also presents an intriguing and intense story about how family and religion fit, or don't fit, into our lives. Important questions are raised about faith and what we should or shouldn't believe in. Is there really a God in a world of abandoned children and miserable minimum-wage jobs? Is faith something we should all have and hold on to, no matter how it manifests itself? Even if it's faith in the end of the world for all of us? Is that kind of faith really healthy?
In the hands of director Mark Peckham, these questions are brought to vivid life. His staging is skilled and allows for maximum impact of the play's moments, whether dramatic, sad or comic. Although some moments are given a little too long to breathe, until they should have long since stopped, he allows for every important beat to have it's appropriate time to register while keeping the pace quick for most of the play's short running time.
Peckham has also shown skill in assembling a uniformly excellent ensemble to fill these eccentric roles. Nathanael Lee is perfect as Will, a man struggling to hold on to something, whether it's long-lost his son, his religion or both. While at first Lee's Will just seems harmlessly dorky, an awkward nerd of sorts, there is far more beneath the surface. Lee does an excellent job of letting us see only glimpses of what lies beneath, until the play's climactic moments.
As Will's son, Alex, Patrick Saunders is also fantastic. Like Will, Alex is more than meets the eye, as at first he seems like just a typical angst-ridden teenager. As the story unfolds, Saunders lets us into Alex's inner self, peeling back the layers and exposing the character's vulnerability. It's a touching performance that borders on heartbreak.
While there may be heartbreak to be found, there is also genuine humor. Mostly, this comes from Suzy Bowen Powers as the store manager, Pauline. Powers plays the character with commitment and enthusiasm, bringing all of her swearing and cursing (yes, there is a lot) to hilarious life. The best part of Powers' performance though, is that she doesn't just offer an angry, bitter, foul-mouthed retail manager. There's actual depth and emotion there as well, motivation behind all the attitude, which makes the character seem even more real. There's also a lot of humor from the other female cast member, Tray Gearing, as Anna. In another nuanced and wonderful performance, Gearing creates a character who alternates between lovable and pathetic, between joyous and sad, and she does it all perfectly. It's unfortunate that the audience never really gets to know more about Anna or the final character, Alex's adopted brother, Leroy, played skillfully by James Lucey.
It should be noted that another character in this play is really the set itself, and kudos should be given to set designer Karl Pelletier. If you've ever worked a retail job anywhere, you have been in this room. Every detail is perfect and true to life, giving the play an even greater sense of reality and feel that it could be any one of us going through this situation. This season, 2nd Story has really impressed with their set designs in the excellent, intimate DownStage space.
That space also gives the audience an even greater opportunity to be confronted with the issues in this play that is funny but also dark, hopeful but also violent and even sad. It's up to each of us to decide how "bright" this Boise really is but it's a trip well worth taking.
A Bright New Boise is playing in the DownStage space at 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market Street, Warren, RI. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for studetns and may be purchased throught 2nd Story's website at 2ndstorytheatre.com.
Pictured: (L to R) Patrick Saunders and Nathanael Lee. Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.