The seeds of what will eventually become a great writer can often be found in their earliest works. So, it is a particular thrill to rediscover Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise, which premiered in 2010 at the Wild Project and is now being revived by Signature Theatre Company. The joy of Oliver Butler's new production is seeing how Hunter began developing the distinguishing characteristics of future works like The Whale and A Case for the Existence of God — among them, the conflict between the spiritual and the secular, and the overwhelming compassion for society's forgotten — even if the text is (and, looking back, always has been) halfway there.
The protagonist is Will (Peter Mark Kendall), an evangelical Christian who has relocated from Rathdrum, Idaho to Boise following a scandalous church tragedy in which he was tangentially involved. Strategically secretive about his faith while somewhat questioning it at the same time, Will is trying his best to start over, and part of that involves reconnecting with the teenage son who he never knew. Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) is a star employee at the local Hobby Lobby, and when Will gets a job there, it throws the balance of their lives and the store into chaos.
Hobby Lobby is just a relatively inexpensive arts and crafts supply store — if you ignore the decades-long accusations of homophobia, antisemitism, antifeminism, and religious proselytizing directed at the company's founders (mostly recently, they are partial funders of the Christianity-promoting "He Gets Us" advertising campaign, according to published reports). In the same vein, Will just desires a fresh beginning and isn't really trying to push his faith on anyone, or so he tells store manager Pauline (the hilariously weary Eva Kaminsky), even though the savvy viewers around us can see that it will eventually come to that (directed toward a jittery loner delightfully played by Anna Baryshnikov). At its core, A Bright New Boise is about the stories we tell ourselves to get through the day.
Hunter casts no aspersions on his struggling characters. As now characteristic in his work, he presents them free of judgement, and the emotional maturity on display is wise beyond its years. That doesn't make A Bright New Boise the perfect play, though. More glaring, at least in Butler's production than David McCallum's nearly 13 years ago, is the inconsistent way that Hunter tries to straddle and connect two worlds, the profundity of religion and the blandness of work. With various emotional beats feeling a little off kilter, the result is sort of like a fire and brimstone version of The Office.
Butler has a stronger hand with his actors and designers. Wilson Chin's set is the definition of corporate banality, a break room where everything — from the microwave to the TV— is broken. Jen Schreiver's and Christopher Darbassie provide ominous lighting and sound in the middle of the plainness. April M. Hickman's costumes — particularly the confrontational t-shirts worn by Leroy (Angus O'Brien), Alex's adoptive brother — give the characters an added depth.
The central focus is the uneasy relationship between estranged father and son Will and Alex, which Kendall and Diaz-Silverio infuse with believable awkwardness and longing. Diaz-Silverio, in his off-Broadway debut, really captures the youthful insecurity that comes with not knowing who you really are. In a way, the baby-faced Kendall is perfect for his role: you'd never expect that this unassuming wallflower of a man would be spending his days waiting for the apocalypse to burn up all the nonbelievers. But he hasn't quite found the motivation yet. There's a blankness he can't shake that leaves us at arm's length when we really need to be lulled into a false sense of security.
I felt that way about the play itself, too. In the ensuing years, Hunter has given us works like The Harvest and Clarkston and Greater Clements, which pull out the rug in more dramatically satisfying ways. In A Bright New Boise, the seeds are planted, but its young writer hasn't really gotten there yet. But it's awfully fun to look back and see how far he's come.