KEEPING THE PEACE Victims of the apocalypse.
The break room of the Boise “Hobby Lobby,” a big-box craft store, does not seem like much of a place to go seeking communion. With its dun partition walls, its rows of notices about laws and choking, its grade-school style motivational graphics of race-cars (“Winning Team!”), and its television, always on and tuned to the Hobby Lobby station, it smacks part of corporate vacuum, part of sad elementary school. And yet it’s here that Will (Rob Cameron) is desperate to forge an intimacy, in Samuel D. Hunter’s darkly affecting A Bright New Boise. In this superb collaboration between Fenix Theater Company and Dramatic Repertory Company, which runs at the new Portland Ballet Studio Theater under the direction of Keith Powell Beyland, Will negotiates both spiritual and personal apocalypse.
It’s a small, sterile space for human empowerment or uplift. As the briskly good-natured store manager Pauline (Bess Welden) explains, when she hires Will, she can’t even turn on the AC without calling Oklahoma City. Yet Will, a founder of a Rapture-preaching Church he’d prefer to keep quiet about, harbors important intentions for this room: He’s come here to find Hobby Lobby employee Alex (Gabriel Walker), a gentle, precocious teen who listens to modern classical, and spend time with him. Meanwhile, holing up in the break room at odd hours, he also encounters Alex’s step-brother Leroy (Erik Moody), a cheerfully punk MFA student; and the sweet, sheepish Anna (Abigail Killeen), a grown woman who hides in the flower section at closing time to delay going home to her dad. Once these co-workers learn of his motivations and his faith, this corporate wasteland of a room becomes both a place of fellowship and a crucible for belief.
In their respites from Pauline’s rapid-fire retail pragmatism (Welden’s savvy, breezy pacing is a comic dream), these slightly odd, slightly lost people yearn and awkwardly attempt to connect. Beyland’s cast delivers performances that are rife with quiet physical nuance, both comedic and tempered with empathy: Moody’s provocatively deadpan, monotone Leroy needles Will with increasing candor. Killeen’s heartbreaking, fragile but eager Anna, though habitually unable to hold a gaze, nevertheless keeps raising her eyes back to her new co-worker. Will’s face holds first interest, then dismay, then exasperated agony, as an angsty rap is performed for him by Alex (never a troubled-teen cliché, thanks to Walker’s restraint and humor). Perhaps the most haunting moment of internal dissonance in this room comes as Alex, alone, watches Hobby Lobby TV, visibly internalizing the horror of its empty corporate inanities.
Cameron, looking pale, lumpy with unease, and tinged with desire and ache, gives what is perhaps his most subtle, mature, and quietly tragic work. His Will opens particularly as he reveals more about his faith (reading to Anna from his Rapture novel, his hands at first tug nervously at his hair, then gradually become instruments of passion, gesturing conviction and brimstone above his head) and in his harrowing, guilt-ridden moments alone, looking heavenward, quivering and repeating “Now.”
His Will is no religious freak but an affable, confused man who has more often been a victim of discrimination against his beliefs than he has tried to force them on anyone. His tragedy is that these beliefs are incompatible with living forward, which all of them — and even, despite his apocalyptic beliefs, Will himself — are trying their simple best to do.
A Bright New Boise | by Samuel D. Hunter | Directed by Keith Powell Beyland | Produced by Dramatic Repertory Company and Fenix Theater Company, at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater | through November 24 | dramaticrep.org