We’re back in Idaho, a place I’ve viewed fondly for a decade, although I’ve never visited the state, because this is where playwright Samuel D. Hunter has set all his quietly amusing and powerfully affecting dramas, most memorably the three most recent: “Lewiston/Clarkston” (2018), “Greater Clements” (2019), and “A Case for the Existence of God” (2022.) Like many of the characters in Hunter’s other plays, those in “A Bright New Boise,” who all work for a Hobby Lobby store in Boise, Idaho, are struggling with loss, trying to survive, and hoping against the odds for something more.
So it surprised me that I did not respond to “A Bright New Boise,” which he wrote in 2010, with the same enthusiasm as his more recent work. There are moving moments in this revival, at Signature Theater through March 12th, and a fine cast doing their best to bring to life the sometimes quirky characters in a play that won for Hunter an Obie and his first major acclaim. But “A Bright New Boise” takes on a subject — religious extremism — for which the playwright’s gentle, oblique approach now feels insufficient.
In the deliberately drab break room of the Hobby Lobby in Boise where the entire play takes place, we first see Will (Peter Mark Kendall) in the final moments of a job interview with the store’s manager, Pauline (Eva Kaminsky), who is describing an anti-union video she is supposed to show him, but the VCR isn’t working.
“So,” she instructs cheerfully in conclusion, “don’t unionize.”
“I really won’t,” he replies.
Pauline notes a slight gap in his resume. He says it’s because he was working for a church.
“Oh, you just…” he stumbles, “… I don’t know, sometimes people—they make assumptions about who you are based on….”
“Hell, we’re not like that, believe me,” Pauline says, pointing out that the Hobby Lobby founder is Christian.
It takes no time at all for us to learn that Pauline is not just the clipboard-carrying, faith-respecting corporate drone that she initially seems. (That ironic “Hell” turns out to be a preview.) When she sees that the TV that is supposed to be presenting Hobby Lobby merchandise is instead switched (because of crossed cables) to some weird medical channel, she lets loose with an explosion of foul-mouthed epithets, only the first of many.
It takes longer, much longer – the entire length of the play – to learn about Will. Little by little, facts about him emerge through his interaction with the other characters. We discover that he moved to Boise for this dead-end job as a clerk, because one of the other employees, a teenager named Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) is his son, given up for adoption shortly after his birth. Alex is sullen and resentful; he has frequent panic attacks — which only his adoptive older brother Leroy (Angus O’Brien), another store employee, knows how to handle: They crouch on the floor and stare at one another, Leroy silently asking Alex to guess what composer he’s thinking of. Alex, you see, has great knowledge and passion (and perhaps talent) for music. The evolving relationship among the three sort-of relatives is combative, complicated, intriguing, touching; it might have worked as the main focus of the play — perhaps it’s intended to be so — but we’re more drawn by the unfolding of Will’s religious views.
We learn through Leroy, who is protective of Alex and suspicious of Will, that Will left his hometown up North after a scandal in his church.
The fifth employee, Anna (Anna Baryshnikov), likes to sneak into the store after hours so that she can read in peace — where she discovers that Will has snuck in as well so that he can write in peace. He has a blog in which he’s writing a novel, which we soon learn is about The Rapture. Anna develops a crush on Will, and invites him to her church. “I’m not sure if the Lutheran church is for me,” he says mildly.
That turns out to be an almost comic understatement. It eventually emerges that Will’s church was an extreme fundamentalist cult preaching doom. (It is hard to call this a spoiler, considering that before we even enter the theater, Signature has put up a historic timeline of apocalyptic cults on the lobby wall right outside.)
By the end of the play, we’ve learned what the scandal was that caused Will to leave the church, but we also realize Will hasn’t given up on the rapture; he still believes the end times are near, and he can’t wait. What we never learn is why, or how it has affected his political or social views.
Hunter is quoted as saying that he wrote “A Bright New Boise” as a way to explore deeply religious people in everyday contexts, and that in the years since he wrote the play, it is even more important to “acknowledge” that such religious extremists are out there, and to “try to understand… how they’re gaining traction.”
It’s hard to disagree. The play in one way feels almost prescient; just four years after Hunter wrote it, Hobby Lobby (an actual chain of hundreds of arts and crafts stores in 47 states, albeit none in New York City) was the named plaintiff in a successful and much-noted Supreme Court case that permitted the company on religious grounds to deny offering contraceptives in their employee health plans.
Given such real-life threats to our secular society, it feels urgent to understand the religious zealots in our country in political not just theological or spiritual terms. But Will is more or less a cipher. Hunter spends so much time in “A Bright New Boise” dramatically leading up to the revelation of Will’s continuing extremist views, there is little time to elucidate them, or him. Perhaps the shock that this apparently mild-mannered character is so extreme served in and of itself as a satisfying climax in 2010, but it doesn’t feel enough now. Unlike, say, the characters in Will Arbury’s 2019 play. “Heroes of the Fourth Turning“, which is about a group of ultra conservative Catholics, we never seem to get inside Will’s mind, never explore his worldview in any sophisticated way. He’s a mystery, perhaps to himself, but certainly to me.
I ultimately felt little sympathy and even less connection to Will. This is arguably on me, but it’s not a problem I remember having with any of Samuel D. Hunter’s other well-etched Idahoans.
A Bright New Boise
Signature Theater through March 12, 2023
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $49 – $139
Written by Samuel DAngus. Hunter
Directed by Oliver Butler
Scenic design by Wilson Chin, costume design by April M. Hickman, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Christopher Darbassie, projection and video design by Stefania Bulbarella
Cast: Anna Baryshnikov(Anna), Ignacio Diaz-Silverio (Alex),Eva Kaminsky(Pauline),Peter Mark Kendall(Will), and Angus O’Brien(Leroy)