It must be comforting to believe the end is nigh. The finality of the rapture would make other problems seem inconsequential, and the promise of a blissful afterlife could provide solace from daily suffering. But there’s also a darker side to this kind of faith: a true-believer need not participate in family or community because, to them, the final reckoning is what matters most. This tension is central to Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise, the new play at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. With likable, flawed characters in a uniquely American setting, the play uses profanity-laced humor to explore its religious themes in an engaging way.
Will (Michael Russotto) is applying for a retail job in a Hobby Lobby. His future boss Pauline (Emily Townley) is a tough woman who wants her store to function with minimal bullshit. On his first day, Will has an ulterior motive. Shortly after he introduces himself to his co-worker Alex (Joshua Morgan), Will confesses he is Alex’s biological father. Alex does not take this news well – he is prone to panic attacks and hates his adopted parents – so Alex’s brother Leroy (Felipe Cabezas) treats Will like an enemy.
Leroy does not stop with mere intimidation, and learns about Will’s dubious past. Will was involved with a cult-like church in northern Idaho, one complete with a body count and a police investigation. He maintains he had nothing to do with the murder victim, and now prefers to keep the faith quietly. Others are still curious about him, and so he develops an uneasy friendship with Anna (Kimberly Gilbert). They both stay in the store past closing so they can pursue their hobbies: Anna reads while Will works on his novel about the end of the world. Before long, Will upsets the delicate ecosystem of his new workplace. Pauline is furious when his fixation on the rapture, as well as his fragile relationship with Alex, collide in the Hobby Lobby break room.
Hunter shrewdly takes his time to develop Will. In the first act, the other Hobby Lobby employees do most of the talking. Each one is funny in a different way, and the well-developed characters – complete with unique ideas about religion – help the material rise above mere shtick. Pauline is not just a loquaciously profane manager; she’s also ruthlessly competent and a hardened judge of character. Leroy is not just a provocateur with funny t-shirts (see below); he’s also an artist with a conscience and real love for his brother. Alex and Anna are awkward outsiders, though Alex is inward while Anna has an undeveloped social filter. The character-driven comedy of the first act lays the groundwork for the challenging of the second. When Will is no longer self-effacing and reveals himself as a true believer, it is a foregone conclusion how others react to his zeal.
Not since last year’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play has there been a cohesive Woolly production like this. There are small character-building moments, as well as verbal sparring where Will and the others articulate their values. The production work is excellent, too. Designed by Misha Kachman, the striking set is brimming with sharp angles so the Hobby Lobby looks downright apocalyptic. Other weird visual detail, including footage of medical procedures, adds queasy discomfort as the characters chat. Yet as energy builds and tension bubbles, director John Vreeke sometimes deflates the production with unnecessary, protracted moments of silence. Two actors on a closed circuit television sometimes fill the void with witless banter, but their presence does not solve the play’s uneven pacing.
A Bright New Boise draws uncomfortable conclusions and uses a familiar setting to deepen its theme of alienation. The play is outright critical of its characters in a way I did not suspect, making a case that some bonds are more important than the one between man and God. Unfortunately, Hunter concludes the play with a superfluous theatrical flourish. The coda overstates the play’s message, especially since Vreeke and his cast handle the material with careful observation and sensitivity. Still, by the end of A Bright New Boise, Will has an answer in a way the audience does not. But because Hunter complicates his play while preserving the faith of his hero, we see how unwavering belief is rarely the answer we need right now.
A Bright New Boise is at The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company until November 6. Buy tickets here!