The Bard’s Town Theatre broadens its focus this season with an outstanding production of Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise.” This tightly-wound family drama about a disgraced evangelical who takes a job at an Idaho Hobby Lobby won an Obie Award in 2011 and has enjoyed a number of exciting regional premieres over the last season by companies like Washington, D.C.’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre and Chicago’s LiveWire.
Doug Schutte’s production is riveting, an emotionally-resonant exploration of the tension between steadfast faith and human frailty. “A Bright New Boise” opened yesterday and runs through August 11 at The Bard’s Town Theatre, upstairs from the restaurant and bar.
“A Bright New Boise” takes place in the break room and parking lot of a Hobby Lobby, those cavernous impersonal stores that anchor interstate exit shopping centers across the country. It’s both rooted in its region and entirely region-less, thanks to the ubiquity of the suburban big box corporate store.
The break room is both sanctuary and panic room for store manager Pauline (Ally Giesting) and her crew: new hire Will (Schutte), sensitive Alex (Ben Gierhart), confrontational conceptual artist Leroy (Corey Music) and awkward Anna (Megan Brown). They’re presided over by a closed-circuit corporate television channel that occasionally and capriciously switches to explicit surgical documentaries, one of the funnier nods to the bizarre nature of the corporate part-time workplace, which demands excellence yet delivers little back in rewards.
We quickly learn that Will has taken a job at this particular Hobby Lobby in order to reconnect with Alex, the son he didn’t raise. But his arrival in Boise is preceded by a scandal at his old church that rocked his once air-tight faith, and over the course of the play he struggles to reconcile his faith with the realities of forming relationships with people outside of the evangelical bubble.
Hunter’s script treats fervent believers with dignity, never turning Will’s fundamentalist faith into a punchline or a grotesquerie, and so it allows us to understand why a man would so desperately want to see the end of the world for reasons ultimately more personal than theological. This is a play about godliness, and every character struggles to maintain faith in that which sustains them. For Will, it’s actually God, the evangelical, apocalyptic version that both feeds and challenges him daily. For Alex, it’s family, and for his brother Leroy, art. Pauline believes in the promise of order in the big box store. She really believes in Hobby Lobby. Anna wants to believe in a story that has stakes.
Hunter’s characters are real, nuanced and recognizable, and Schutte directs a tight ensemble, all delivering truthful, layered performances. Giesting’s potty-mouthed store manager is straight out of Mamet, but she doesn’t just play her profane outbursts for laughs. Her tense exasperation reveals Pauline’s determination to run the best version of her store and crew that she can. Music’s ferocity gives Leroy’s protective older brother teeth, while Brown’s quiet, fidgety Anna is heartbreaking, a portrait of a girl overlooked, quietly pining for a better story. Gierhart’s teenaged Alex is fragile, frustrated and full of anger. It’s a demanding role, and Gierhart is all need and desire, navigating the spectrum of Alex’s moods with an ease that belies its effort.
“A Bright New Boise” is Will’s play, and audiences more accustomed to seeing Schutte play broad comedic roles in recent Bard’s Town productions might be surprised by his dissolute evangelical, vacillating with great emotional intelligence between seeking a new life and holding onto old truths. He walks the line between atoning father and abandoned son with shaky steps, wondering how deep his reserves of strength need to go. It’s a pretty tall order to star in and direct a production this emotionally demanding, and Schutte pulls it off between shifts in the kitchen downstairs.
This production represents a bit of a programming departure for The Bard’s Town, which focused primarily on new work by Kentucky playwrights in its first season, but it fits—the play’s empathetic exploration of evangelical faith and working class life feels familiar and very relevant to this Kentuckian. It’s exciting to see more smaller Louisville companies (Theatre , which opens Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries” next week, is doing similar work) stage excellent newer plays by award-winning playwrights, the types of productions we used to only see once a year in world premiere at Actors’ Theatre’s Humana Festival. “A Bright New Boise” is an exciting addition to the summer season and a programming strategy I hope The Bard’s Town will continue to explore.