Theater Review: “A Bright New Boise” at Woolly Mammoth

A thoughtful, nuanced take on religious fervor.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Will (Michael Russotto) and Alex (Joshua Morgan) in Woolly Mammoth's production of "A Bright New Boise." Photograph by Stan Barouh, courtesy Woolly Mammoth

☆☆☆ stars out of four

Barack Obama may have been vilified for suggesting in 2008 that dissatisfied Americans cling to religion for comfort, but Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise, currently playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, suggests the President was on to something. After all, when life deals you the kind of bum hand in which you’re a middle-aged man making $7.25 an hour working for a craft-store chain, doesn’t the idea of eternal bliss provide some consolation? As Will, the protagonist of Boise, puts it, “Without God, I’m just a terrible father who works in a Hobby Lobby and lives in his car.”

Will (Michael Russotto) is a mild-mannered, middle-aged former pastor with a dark past. He skates over it in a job interview with craft-store manager Pauline (the excellent Emily Townley), but it’s clear from his uncomfortable demeanor that something troubles him—particularly when he blurts out to teenage Hobby Lobby employee Alex (Joshua Morgan) that he’s the father who put Alex up for adoption years earlier. Alex, a possibly on-the-spectrum youth plagued by panic attacks, alcoholic adoptive parents, and a physicality so awkward it’s almost painful, is unimpressed with the reality of the father he built up in his imagination as a successful man of mystery. However, his longing for a connection with somebody leads to a tentative relationship between the two, fueled by Will’s attempts to understand his son through listening to Villa Lobos and Alex’s excruciating beat poetry.

Directed by John Vreeke, Hunter’s take on our inevitable search for the meaning of life is subtle, nuanced, and funny. While Will draws hope from religion, other characters take solace in the very different pillars of art and corporate America. Pauline, a foul-mouthed, wickedly efficient devotee to the rewards of hard work and capitalism, takes no nonsense from any of her employees apart from Leroy (Felipe Cabezas), Alex’s older brother, an artist and the only person working at the Hobby Lobby who knows anything about art supplies. Leroy designs T-shirts emblazoned with profanities, and delights in making people uncomfortable—with the exception of his younger brother, of whom he’s hugely protective. When Alex has a panic attack after a confrontation with Will, Leroy grabs his hand and engages in an unspecified game. “Chagall?” Alex asks. “Kandinsky,” Leroy replies. It’s a brief moment, but a clever nod to the only thing Leroy believes in.

Misha Kachman’s set is a microcosm of middle America—on one side, a generic break room equipped with Utz chips, CoffeeMate, lockers, and other emblems of the workplace; and on the other, four vast streetlights shining down on an empty highway. Between scenes, the loud, emotive sounds of traffic fill the stage. The eerie loneliness of the set is heightened by Will, who’s kind to his coworkers while apparently dreaming of a rapture that will tear them all to shreds. Boise is the first play in a season of Woolly Mammoth productions centered on the end of the world, and it’s an extraordinarily thoughtful show, evoking the vast suburban emptiness of so many unnamed places. At times, however, the play could benefit from a faster pace—Russotto’s quiet measuredness adds depth to his character, but also occasionally causes the action to drag a little.

Hunter, an Idaho native, based the show on his own experiences with religion, where faith is a consolation for an unhappy existence and Armageddon a nicely misanthropic way to enact revenge on unbelieving enemies. At times, the religion message feels a little overplayed (“There are greater things in life. There have to be,” Will tells his son), compared with the subtlety of the other themes suggested (in typically gory Woolly fashion, a television onstage flits between excruciating corporate slogans and what appears to be videos of surgical procedures). As for the play’s main location, the Hobby Lobby seems to serve as a nice metaphor: People devote themselves to the art of making something tangible out of scraps, and pay for the privilege of doing the work themselves. Sound familiar?

A Bright New Boise is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through November 6. Tickets ($35 to $68) are available at Woolly Mammoth’s Web site.