“It’s a terrible time to be alive. There’s just nothing left to discover,” says Jake (Noah Robbins) in the second half of Lewiston/Clarkston, two powerfully affecting plays by Samuel D. Hunter about 21stcentury descendants of the 19thcentury North American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The plays are being presented one after the other in a single evening, separated by a communal dinner during the half-hour intermission, in an extraordinary production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The production offers something of a counter-argument to Jake’s pessimism: In the theater, there is still something to discover, and it may well help us feel more alive.
Rattlestick’s Waverly Place theater has been completely reconfigured for the show, with the removal of its decades-old proscenium stage and of its raked stadium seating. Now, just 50 members of the audience sit in a row of folding chairs on either side of a plain playing space only 13 feet wide.
The aim of the redesign is “extreme intimacy,” as set designer Dane Laffrey explained to me in an article I wrote for TDF Stages about his work, He Doesn’t Design Sets, He Creates Environments
As a result, the two dramas play out in close-up. Such close proximity of audience to actors could be a challenge for both. But even at its most intense, “Lewiston/Clarkston” is never less than credible, and all the more moving, thanks to the direction by Davis McCallum and the six-member cast, who give astonishingly good performances.
The small playing space feels especially appropriate thematically, reflecting the circumscribed lives of the plays’ six characters, who reside in two nearby towns, named after Lewis and Clark, in what was once America’s wide-open frontier.
In “Lewiston,” Alice (Kristin Griffith) is a distant descendant of Meriweather Lewis and a hardened widow who, with her platonic roommate Connor (Arnie Burton), sells fireworks from a roadside stand (represented by a picnic table covered in a plastic American flag tablecloth), six miles from the town of Lewiston. A young woman who has walked from town arrives and browses the wares. But, as it turns out, Marnie (Leah Karpel) is not really a customer. She is Alice’s 24-year-old granddaughter. They haven’t seen each other in the 15 years since Marnie’s mother committed suicide.
Marnie has come home with a plan: She wants to buy Alice’s land, which had been a cattle ranch in the family for generations, using money she made by creating an “urban farm” in Seattle, and set up a similar “sustainable agricultural project” on an actual farm. “..this land was supposed to be mine anyway.”
But there is little of the land left; it hasn’t been a working ranch for years, and Alice has been selling it off bit by bit, and has all but committed the last parcel to a builder who is constructing a condo subdivision entitled Meriwether Terrace.
Marnie is horrified. Alice is not so crazy about it either: “If Meriwether Lewis knew that his name was being attached to something like that, he probably would have stayed put on the east coast, not even bothered coming out here…” But, like most of Hunter’s characters, Alice doesn’t feel she has much choice.
In-between the scenes among the living characters are segments in which Marnie’s mother, in voiceover, recounts her retracing 1,200 miles of the Lewis and Clark trail.
“Lewiston” is neither overly sentimental nor excessively (hiply) bleak. The scenes are sometimes amusing, but the humor is delivered with warmth and insight, not condescension. The characters in “Lewiston” feel spot-on.
“You have no idea who I am or what I’ve been through, this is a lot more complicated than you realize,” Marnie says angrily to Connor.
“Oh because I’d never understand someone as deep and profound as you, is that it?! …Underneath it all you’re obviously just a frightened little child…”
“Yeah, well you’re obviously some closeted gay guy…”
She’s instantly remorseful, and apologizes. He just as instantly acknowledges the truth, and explains it. . These are intelligent, self-aware people, even when they can’t see their way out of their dilemmas.
In “Clarkston,” the three characters face even more serious challenges. Jake, a distant descendant of William Clark, has traveled from Connecticut, also in the hopes of retracing the 19thcentury adventurer, and winds up working at a Costco in Clarkston, which is in Washington state, just 12 miles over the Snake River from Lewiston, Idaho. At the Costco, Jake meets Chris (Edmund Donovan), a fellow worker who shows him the ropes. The stage is still just 13 feet wide, but the community dining area has now been added to the “stage,” and so it feels more like a runway, with Jake and Chris carrying everything from boxes of popcorn to huge television sets from one end to the other.
Chris is baffled that Jake, who is from the East and obviously from a privileged background (he majored in “postcolonial gender studies” at Bennington) would wind up working in a Costco in Clarkston, Washington.
“If you think about it, all these stores like Costco in towns like this, hundreds of miles in between one another—maybe this is like the new West,” Jake says.
“That’s like the most depressing thing I’ve heard in a while,” Chris replies.
“I don’t think so. Maybe we’re like the last American pioneers,” Jake says.
“Cheese puffs go on the bottom,” Chris says, getting back to work.
As the play unfolds, we learn that Jake has a degenerative disease that might kill him in five years; that Chris’s mother Trisha (Heidi Armbruster) is a drug addict who continually tries to go straight, and fails each time; and that both Jake and Chris are gay. Jake’s boyfriend abandoned him when he learned of his diagnosis; Chris is deeply in the closet. All the characters, in other words, are trapped in one way or another. But Jake and Chris make a tentative, awkward connection; they even kiss within a foot of my face. If “Clarkston” is heartbreaking, it also leans toward hopeful, as Jake and Chris, and the audience, search for a new frontier, and feel a little like America’s new pioneers.
Written by Samuel D. Hunter; Directed by Davis McCallum
Set design by Dane Laffrey, costume design by Jessica Wegener Shay, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Fitz Patton
Cast Heidi Armbruster, Arnie Burton, Edmund Donovan, Kristin Griffith, Leah Karpel and Noah Robbins
Running time: Three hours and 15 minutes, with a meal break (chicken or tofu) of half an hour.
Lewiston/Clarkston is on stage through December 16, 2018