Review: LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s new play featuring Laurie Metcalf runs through August 4, 2024

By: Jun. 24, 2024
Review: LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
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In LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD, Samuel D. Hunter has accomplished a rare and magical feat: He’s given us a play that’s mundane and profound at the same time. With Joe Mantello directing, Steppenwolf’s ensemble of Laurie Metcalf, Micah Stock, John Drea, and Meighan Gerachis make the play yet more fascinating and emotionally raw. 

I’ve often said that Hunter writes plays about sad people in Idaho, and I don’t mean that to be reductive. Rather, I think LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD actually represents Hunter at the height of his powers in doing so. Metcalf plays Sarah, an exhausted and isolated nurse living in a small town outside Moscow, Idaho (Hunter’s own hometown.) At the beginning of the play, Sarah’s nephew Ethan (Stock) returns to Idaho to sell his recently deceased, drug-addicted father’s house. Though Sarah and Ethan are obviously aunt and nephew, Ethan pointedly calls his estranged aunt merely by her first name. 

Of course, Metcalf is a huge draw for the play. But she’s truly met her match in Stock. It’s astonishing that so much of LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD consists of Metcalf and Stock sitting and talking (on Scott Pask’s sparse and remarkably effective set, which is just a gray reclining couch on top of a circle of sad gray carpet) or standing and talking. Usually, a play with such little dynamic movement is a recipe for disaster. But this is riveting. And while LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD is achingly sad and existential, Metcalf also has keen comedic timing. Her delivery is wry and acerbic. 

It’s also telling that Sarah and Ethan reconnect at the most disconnected of times: The play begins in 2020 and continues into 2022. While Ethan presumably has had more contact with others over the years in his adopted home city of Seattle, he and Sarah must learn how to renavigate co-existing with another human in the play’s early scenes. As the last two surviving members of their family line, Sarah and Ethan also must contend with whether or not to reconnect despite their estrangement. 

LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD is a profoundly existential play: Sarah and Ethan are merely trying to exist despite all they’ve been through and are going through. Sarah and Ethan are surviving, even if they’re not always clear to what end. Ethan’s a struggling writer who had to escape the clutches of an abusive relationship back in Seattle, while Sarah feels immensely underappreciated at work. 

Hunter makes no bones about the fact that life is hard and messy and potentially without purpose for Sarah and Ethan. And you can feel that Metcalf and Stock carry the weight of that on their characters’ shoulders. While Metcalf plays Sarah as hardened and closed off, Stock hauntingly portrays Ethan’s depression and vulnerability. 

Despite the bleakness, Hunter infuses a little hope into the play. Perhaps the biggest fantasy that LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD conjures is that worthwhile people exist on dating apps. Ethan ends up meeting the brilliant, sweet astrophysicist James (John Drea) off a dating app. James’s chosen area of study is a helpful device in a play about the smallness of humanity in the expanse of the universe. Surprisingly, though, Hunter avoids making this too on the nose. Hunter also uses Ethan and James’s relationship as a beautiful portrait of intimacy and human connection and the miracle of meeting another lovely person amidst the bleakness of life. Drea also plays James as charming, earnest, and open; he’s full of wonder and optimism, while Ethan’s all hard edges. 

LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD is a remarkable examination of mundanity and the delicateness and messiness of humanity. And yet Hunter’s playwriting relays this study in the simultaneous bleakness and resiliency of his characters’ lives without getting preachy about it. Hunter lets Sarah and Ethan speak for themselves; they don’t get didactic. It’s in the realness and the rawness and the bleakness of their experiences that the play finds its deeper resonance. And of course it’s so immensely successful because Metcalf and Stock are so good at mining all the deeply human, messy layers of their characters and the hope that maybe, somehow they can kind of connect in the end. 

LITTLE BEAR RIDGE ROAD plays the Downstairs Theater at Steppenwolf, 1650 North Halsted, through August 4, 2024. Tickets are $20 - $168. 

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow


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