The Reluctant Evangelist

Partial Comfort’s production of A Bright New Boise , running at the Wild Project through October 2nd, achieves the exact goals the company has set out to accomplish. According to their mission statement, Partial Comfort wants to produce work that is immediate and accessible, work that sticks with the viewer “long after the curtain has fallen and the houselights have been raised.” Much to my chagrin, this play has taken root in my gut like a hearty bowl of oatmeal. Boise is a devastating portrait of contemporary American life and the beliefs and fears that sustain and divide us. It is funny, familiar, tragic and exquisitely produced and performed. The play centers on Will, an evangelical Christian whose church has met scandal surrounding the death of one of its young members. Will moves to Boise and takes a job at the local Hobby Lobby in an attempt to connect to his estranged teenage son, Alex. In the Hobby Lobby break room, Will meets and interacts with his various co-workers: his boss, Pauline, (hilariously played by Danielle Slavick), Alex’s older brother, Leroy, an art student whose work consists of t-shirts with slogans like “You will eat your children,” (John Patrick Doherty) and Anna, who, like Will, hides in the store after closing so that she can read in the break room (Sarah Nina Hayon). Will does his best to avoid discussing his past and his faith, but this proves impossible, and tensions escalate quickly.

The characters in A Bright New Boise are all desperately attempting to find meaning in a world of corporate chains and low hopes. The tragedy lies in their inability to reconcile their belief systems with those of their peers.

The play's aesthetic is hyper-realism. Samuel Hunter’s script and Davis McCallum’s direction are nuanced and subtle. Jason Simms’ set is incredibly detailed and fully operational: the appliances work, the florescent lights glow unflatteringly on the steel and plastic furniture. The actors’ performances are equally specific. Their unconscious ticks and gestures pervade the scenes, at times communicating more than the text.

No one is more adept at this than Andrew Garman, who plays the mild-mannered Will. Garman’s portrayal of Will is subtle and quietly tragic: everything, from the way he sits in a chair to the way he sets up his bagged lunch on the break room table communicates his discomfort, vulnerability, and most strongly, deep, deep pain. Will’s pain is so palpable it is difficult to watch him, but we cannot look away.

Will’s attempts to connect with his son are particularly painful. Alex is an awkward but intelligent teen, prone to panic attacks and attention-seeking lies (accurately and poignantly portrayed by Matt Farabee). In one scene, Will nervously mentions to Alex that he listened to a band Alex likes. Alex asks Will what he thought. Will responds, “It was really pretty.

ALEX: Pretty? WILL: Yeah, and – ALEX: (under breath) Jesus Christ WILL: - overwhelming.”

In performance, these last two lines overlap, and Will’s “overwhelming,” which he forces out while rubbing his eye and shifting his feet, is missed by Alex, and only just heard by the audience. It is awkward, difficult, and damn heart wrenching.

McCallum seems intent on making Will difficult to hear and see. For example, Garner plays a couple of scenes with his back to the audience and his face in profile. In another scene, the lights are left dim, making it difficult to see Will’s face. These choices seem to echo Will’s discomfort in his surroundings, his desire to conceal his past and his inner turmoil. It somehow has the opposite effect: the more Will tries to keep his pain private, the more blatant it becomes.

The first act of Boise is markedly different from the second. The first act is an experience: without articulating it in the text, the production hits a nerve, makes apparent a kind of wound that is specific to this country and this moment in time. The audience understands it viscerally, emotionally. The second act attempts to put this wound into words: the characters discuss the beliefs that drive them and we see these same beliefs divide them. Watching the second act, I am more detached, less invested. I wish I had been able to watch both acts in one sitting: had there not been an intermission, I wonder if the play would have maintained the emotional intensity that was so strongly present in the first act.

Still, A Bright New Boise is an excellent production. Though anything but bright, it is undeniably accurate, and absolutely heartfelt: a searing and thorough portrait of the culture wars in America. It left a real impression on me, one I don’t imagine I’ll soon forget.

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