“Now . . .” That’s the first line of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2010 play “A Bright New Boise.” It’s delivered by Will (Victor Shopov) in semi-darkness in the Zeitgeist Stage Company’s New England premiere production at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Will is facing the audience, as if about to begin a monologue; you could almost expect that pause to be followed by “is the winter of our discontent.” Will’s life in Idaho is in fact a perpetual winter of discontent, and his hopes are pinned not on the glorious sun of York but on the glorious son of God. A bright new Boise, he hopes, will arrive with the rapture. Until then, he has his own son to worry about.
Will seems to be standing in a parking lot. Most of Idaho native Hunter’s play is, however, set in the break room of the Boise Hobby Lobby, where, in Zeitgeist artistic director David J. Miller’s appropriately depressing set, the employees of this craft-supply franchise outlet can sit at one of two flimsy-looking card tables. At one end, there’s a door leading back to the store; at the other, slate-blue employee lockers. A grubby-looking counter and sink host a coffee maker and paper cups and some Ajax cleanser; a chalk board exhorts everyone to “shake things up,” “make waves,” and “order dessert”; tacked to a bulletin board is the reminder that “Idaho law prohibits discrimination.” An oversize shopping cart is loaded with silk flowers and photo frames; above it hangs a video monitor that sometimes shows Hobby Lobby pitchmen and sometimes what look like medical procedures.
Will, it transpires, has just been taken on by the Hobby Lobby as a cashier for $7.25 an hour. He’s briefed by store manager Pauline (Janelle Mills) and meets fellow employees Alex (Zach Winston), Anna (Dakota Shepard), and Leroy (David Lutheran). Two revelations follow in short order. Will claims to be (and in fact is) adopted Alex’s real father. But Will is also a refugee from northern Idaho, where he belonged to an evangelical church, the New Life Fellowship, that’s embroiled in scandal: Pastor Rick took losing-his-faith Danny into the woods to test him, and Danny died. This does not go down well with Pauline, or with Leroy, who’s the son of Alex’s adoptive parents and protective of his brother.
The problem with Hunter’s 100-minute one-act is that at times it seems more polemic than play. Alex’s adoptive parents are alcoholics who’ve told him that Will is a child beater, or maybe a neo-Nazi. Now their story is that he’s just dead. Anna has to hide out in the Hobby Lobby after closing so she can read (“Falling from Grace” is her current book) because her family makes fun of her if she reads at home. The Hobby Lobby is so corporate that Boise has to call headquarters in Oklahoma for permission to turn on the air conditioning. And Will’s view of the world doesn’t soften: at the end he’s still shouting that “God will come again in glory to replace this disgusting life with something new, and pure, and eternal.”
The Zeitgeist actors do what they can with old and impure and impermanent. Shopov looks, and acts, very young for 39-year-old Will; he seems more like Alex’s older brother. Hunter does give Will and Alex some great detail, though, and Shopov and Winston develop a real rapport. Shepard in turn appears too young to be contemplating a 39-year-old boyfriend, but she makes Anna’s awkwardness endearing. Mills and Lutheran are proficient in underwritten parts. But the play seems to have one son too many: though he’s a writer, Will never gets his feelings about Jesus and Alex on the same page. Perhaps the play just needs more pages.