By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Religion—not intellectual theological debate—but old-time, fundamentalist, burn-in-hell, get-down-on-your-knees evangelical preachifying is a tricky topic for a play. Especially a play written by a fundamentalist Christian from Idaho which won an Obie in New York.
You keep asking yourself is this for real? Does this play mean it? How seriously are we supposed to take these characters? How much does patronizing pity for people who work in big box stores for minimum wage, live in their cars, and have little in their lives to sustain them, color this show? Is blue-collar neurosis inherently more sympathetic for being blue-collar? How interesting are we supposed to find these boring corporate videos? Do such meager lives make people crazy as well as desperate?
This is the dilemma presented by A Bright New Boise by Sam Hunter, in a fine production by Simpatico Theatre Project, directed by Jill Harrison.
Regardless of your answers to the questions, the play, sustained by some superb acting, is engrossing and considerably creepy. All the characters work for Hobby Lobby, and we see them only in the dreary Break Room where TV monitors flip up and back between droning sales pitches and weird and gruesome medical close-ups (the ingeniously awful set was designed by Ian Paul Guzzone).
The central character, Will (Kevin Bergen in a remarkably nuanced and persuasive performance) has left his town and his church to reunite with his son Alex (the excellent Aubie Merrylees) whom he hasn't seen since he was an infant. Alex is troubled by panic attacks and manipulates people by saying "STOP" followed by "Or I'll kill myself."
Alex's older brother Leroy (Robert Carlton who seems painfully self-conscious onstage) is supposed to be an artist but whose rage against the machine merely takes the form of crude t-shirts. Anna (Jessica Dalcanton) is an odd young woman who keeps getting fired and keeps reading the same book and is fascinated by death. Running the store is Pauline (Catherine Palfenier) who knows that what's important is money and keeping the customers happy.
These people are all desperate for meaning or for redemption or for something: as Will says, "Without God, I'm just a terrible father who works in a Hobby Lobby and lives in his car. There's got to be more." Paradoxically, the "more" is the destruction of the world, as he awaits The Rapture. A Bright New Boise is an unusual night in the theater.
Simpatico Theatre Project at Independence Studio on 3, Walnut St. Theatre, 9th & Walnut Sts. Through Oct. 21 Tickets $10-22. Information: 215-423-0254 or www.simpaticotheatre.org