Idaho-born playwright Samuel D. Hunter is a hot property on the American stage right now, thanks in large part to his most recent Off-Broadway show The Whale, about a 600-pound man trying to reconnect with his daughter. Circle Theatre is staging the regional debut of Hunter’s 2010 script A Bright New Boise, and even if the author is currently riding a wave of acclaim, it still took a fair amount of courage to produce this poetic, deeply ambivalent drama about religious faith. Theater audiences tend to lean left in their politics and toward the secular in their worldview, and Boise presents (among other things) an unapologetic wrestling with evangelical Christianity that dares to take the views of an evangelical character seriously. By turns brutal and tender, archly funny and painfully sad, Circle’s staging offers a compelling North Texas introduction to Hunter’s layered work, courtesy mainly of director Steven Pounders and his flawless cast.
The playwright happens to be gay, which may or may not have informed his creation of Boise’s marginalized central character Will (a superbly restrained Chip Wood), a mild-mannered guy who nevertheless feels out of place almost everywhere in mainstream society. The source of Will’s difference is not his sexuality but his deeply held fundamentalist Christian faith, which includes a fervent belief that the rapture is imminent. His esoteric –– some would say extreme –– views led him to co-found a charismatic congregation in rural northern Idaho that disbanded not long after the scandalous death of one of its youngest members. Fleeing that well-publicized tragedy, Will has come to Boise to start his life over and work on a serialized online novel that details, Left Behind-style, what the end of the world will look and feel like to both the saved and the unsaved.
Integral to Will’s new beginning in Boise is befriending his biological son Alex (a touching Michael McMillan), a high schooler given up for adoption as an infant by his mother, Will’s estranged girlfriend. The moody, panic attack-prone Alex works at the big-box retailer Hobby Lobby with his older adopted brother Leroy (Montgomery Sutton in a provocatively feral turn), a college art major whose idea of artistic rebellion is wearing t-shirts that read “FUCK” or that are emblazoned with photos of his penis. Will gets hired at the same Hobby Lobby by the store’s control-freak manager Pauline (an authoritative Morgan McClure) and attempts, not so gracefully, to ingratiate himself into Alex’s life. In the process, Will meets a sad-sack co-worker named Anna (Jenny King, utterly authentic in the role), who reads and admires his apocalyptic novel but begins to suspect he might be trying to convert her. All five characters tangle over the limits of faith, the fragility of family, and the search for meaning in life’s inevitable disappointments.
A Bright New Boise doesn’t take any of the obvious routes you might expect for a play that, in part, investigates the motives behind people’s spirituality (or lack thereof). It doesn’t condemn or condone faith or non-belief but instead presents both for what they are: complicated philosophies used to make sense of chaotic reality. At heart, the script is an eccentric character study of people reflecting on their lives and wondering, in the words of that classic Peggy Lee tune, “Is that all there is?” Playwright Hunter spices his script with haunting, beautiful motifs and devices, and director Pounders highlights them expertly: When Alex slips into one of his panic attacks, Leroy draws him out with a game in which the younger brother stares into the eyes of the older one, trying to guess what piece of modern art Leroy is thinking of. And then there are the TV sets in the break room, which are supposed to show Hobby Lobby commercials nonstop but are periodically interrupted by strange medical broadcasts that depict gory surgical procedures. These tantalizing elements lend an undercurrent of mystery to the show’s apparently prosaic situations.
The Circle Theatre house was only about half full for last Friday night’s performance, which might reflect apathy toward an unknown playwright or hesitance about the difficult themes in this show. That’s a shame, because A Bright New Boise represents what’s so exciting about live theater: a sharp-witted new talent exploring important ideas in an entertaining, accessible way. Circle and its splendid cast should be proud of their time in Boise. Meanwhile, Fort Worth audiences should reward top-quality productions of new playwrights by hightailing it to this weekend’s final performances.
A Bright New Boise
Thru Sat at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $20-30.