By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
“A Bright New Boise” opens on one of life’s great indignities: the job interview.
Will, a middle aged man, is hoping to work at the Hobby Lobby, a big box store for crafts enthusiasts.
The store’s manager, Pauline, briskly walks him through the store’s potentially objectionable policies — he’ll be scheduled for thirty eight hours rather than forty (presumably so he can be excluded from benefits), he’s not to unionize, his drug test will be in two days — and he obsequeously agrees, but, though the scene reads as satire, in Third Rail’s production (through June 23) it doesn’t play as such.
As director John Vreeke stages the scene, the rules — unfair, invasive, and dehumanizing though they are — are just things to be stated and agreed to, in order to move on to more important matters.
The questions this arrangement raises — What is the cost of functioning in circumstances like these? Can one find meaning and fulfillment in life when they’re indifferent, or professing to be, to the inequity of their surroundings? — are large and weighty, but the play’s tone is anything but ponderous.
If the production has a fault, in fact, it’s that it sometimes feels like a workplace sitcom.
Pauline (the excellent Jacklyn Maddux) is the gruff — and profane — but loving boss, mohawk wearing Leroy (an intense, funny Chris Murray) is the resident malcontent, and Anna (Kerry Ryan in a nice comedic turn) is the ditz.
At the play’s center are Will (Tim True in a magnificent performance) and Alex (the amazing Andy Lee Hillstrom), the son he gave up for adoption 17 years ago, and who he has come to Boise, and the Hobby Lobby, in the hopes of reuniting with.
Complicating Will’s plans is the play’s other theme — after the soul crushing effects of corporate capitalism — religion.
Will has come to Boise from a controversial “end of days” church whose pastor was jailed after the mysterious death of a young parishioner. Will’s involvement with the group colors his relationships with the store, with its workers, and with society in general.
It’s to Third Rail’s credit that big box retailing and Christianity, two subjects routinely used as piñatas in intellectual Portland life, are handled with seriousness and sensitivity here.
Pauline, for instance, finds meaning in her success, having turned her branch of the Hobby Lobby around and saved it from closing, and is willing to hold her nose around the organization’s annoyances.
Anna, a high school dropout, keeps washing out of jobs like this one, but dreams of stability, and of a modest Lutheran respectability she fears her past has made her unworthy of.
The play presents Will’s religion — closed off, misanthropic — as pernicious. We see this first in hints from Leroy, an atheist, and Alex’s adoptive brother, who has begun researching Will.
Leroy, an art student who works at the Hobby Lobby only to afflict the comfortable with his barbed tongue and custom T-shirts that read “FUCK” and “YOU ARE MEAT,” is leery of Will’s motives in seeking to reunite with Alex, and we learn later his suspicions are founded.
Alex is at first ambivalent toward Will, demanding a blood test and literally dictating the terms on which they speak. Lee-Hillstrom is fantastic in these scenes, bratty and cruel, while revealing just enough pain to show the source of his behaviors. A scene in which Will’s eagerness to bond triggers a panic attack in Alex is astounding, demonstrating the depth of connection between everyone involved in a way the words only barely suggest.
Before Will’s arrival, Alex’s main influence had been Leroy, and he’d made avant-garde music satirizing capitalism. Will’s faith offers him another path, but what kind?
As presented by the play, Will’s thoughts are almost wholly nihlistic. Normally meek, he at first takes pains to avoid discussing his beliefs. When he bears his fangs, however, his demeanor changes. In a thundering voice he expresses hatred toward anyone who finds joy in the world, and joy in his certainty that all who are not like him will perish in the rapture.
True is impressive in these scenes, bellowing out Will’s prophecies, but they create a problem the play never solves. What’s Will’s place in the world if he wants only to watch it burn, and how is Alex supposed to negotiate his new relationship with him?
In the end, “A Bright New Boise” raises more questions than it can fully explore, and its structure occasionally lacks elegance — problems Third Rail’s production can’t quite overcome — but it sticks with one, and its images and incidents resonate and deepen on reflection, which seems fitting for a play that examines the contradictions that surround us, and that we often push just out of view.
“A Bright New Boise” by Samuel D. Hunter at Third Rail Repertory through June 23.