Giddy-up Armageddon! could be the rallying cry for evangelical misfit Will (Michael Russotto), the sad-sack hero of Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise, a divinely inspired heartland comedy directed by John Vreeke.
Will has moved to the big city of Boise from a small Idaho town to reconnect with Alex (an achingly tormented Joshua Morgan), the son he gave up for adoption. As it turns out, he is also lying low after a tragedy at his “end of days” church shattered his world. All he has left is his faith—and his unshakable confidence that The Rapture is coming any day now and will whisk him away from his humdrum life. From the empty parking lot of a big box store, he bellows “Now! Now!” up to God like a born-again Stanley Kowalski howling to Stella.
His mind may be filled with vivid images of the thundering hooves of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and bustling suburbs reduced to ashes, but his existence couldn’t be more mundane. He, like the other characters in Mr. Hunter’s play, is trapped as a blue-vested employee of a fictional craft store, Hobby Lobby. We never see what goes on in the store, but watching the way Will and his fellow employees cling to their time in the anonymous break room as if it is a life raft tells us volumes about how soul-destroying this particular retail drudgery must be.
The break room—a cinder block oasis so existential you expect Vladimir and Estragon to pop out of one of the gray lockers—is a ripe comedic fodder. A corporate TV feed featuring two talking heads (the hilariously deadpan Michael Glenn and Michael Willis) drones on in the corner, sometimes inexplicably interrupted by footage of gruesome medical procedures. The trash-mouthed manager Pauline (Emily Townley, her natural glamour disguised in a hard mask of corporate efficiency and rage) bursts in and out of the room, her face pursed like a fist as she deals with crises real and imagined.
Here, the employees gather, all at odds with society in some way or another — the sweet, retiring Anna (Kimberly Gilbert, so gifted at playing young women profoundly uncomfortable in their skin and prickly about brushing up against other people); Leroy (an intense and chafing Felipe Cabezas), a slacker artist whose art involves deliberately making people uncomfortable, and Alex, a smart and panic attack-prone adolescent whose angst-riddled musical compositions are alone worth seeing Bright New Boise.
At the center of this clump of comic losers stands Will, who seems on the surface to have it more together than the rest as he pounds out Christian apocalyptic fiction on his laptop during breaks and placidly reacts to all the pettiness and mayhem around him. However, you soon find out he’s living in his car, is practically convulsed with guilt over what happened at his former church, and his attempts to reconcile with Alex are wildly awkward at best.
What’s interesting about the character of Will (and Mr. Russotto’s performance, which renders the mild-mannered magnetic) is that beneath this seemingly composed exterior roils a smugness and ego that he is one of the chosen people and he is firmly on the right side—and will soon get his reward in the afterlife for the pain and banality endured on earth. For all this, Mr. Hunter does not take the easy way out and aim pot shots at fundamental Christians and their beliefs, as tempting as it may be. Instead, he portrays Will as a religious man who simply cannot function in the real world. He’s out of step until he can walk with Jesus.
The contrast between big issues and small lives is rendered in Misha Kachman’s amazing set, which pits the fluorescent-lit isolation of the small break room against a seemingly endless horizon of storm clouds, thunder and lightning and the hum of interstate highways and urban noise. In this place, the divine and the commonplace intersect—where the afterlife is a tantalizing prospect, while life on earth holds prospects for closeness and connection that may be equally so close and yet so out of reach.
A Bright New Boise
By Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by John Vreeke
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Two hours, plus one 15-minute intermission