Leroy (c. right, Patrick Russell) calms Alex (c. left, Daniel Petzold) after a panic episode as Will (l, Robert Parsons) and Pauline (r, Gwen Loeb) look on in Aurora Theatre Company’s “A Bright New Boise.” Photo: David Allen

In the edgy and provocative “A Bright New Boise,” Idahoan author and winner of the 2011 Obie Award for Playwriting, Samuel D. Hunter, examines familial relations, forgiveness, religion and corporate culture.

Protagonist Will (accomplished Robert Parsons) left his rural Idaho town for Boise after a headline-making tragedy blows apart his nondenominational evangelical church. Will applies for minimal wage work at the Hobby Lobby, a craft-supply big box store (see more about the real Hobby Lobby below), with the hope of reconnecting with Alex, the gloomy teenager he had given up for adoption.

Alex (well-acted by Daniel Petzold) and Alex’s also adopted brother, Leroy (Patrick Russell shines) work at the Hobby Lobby, as does the profit-seeking, loudmouth manager Pauline, (funny Gwen Loeb) and the anxious depressed Anna (excellent Megan Trout). Will completes this blue-collar quintet, all sharing dead-end jobs. Most of the play’s action occurs in the Hobby Lobby’s stark break room, with only a few scenes outside the store. Hobby Lobby is their world. In fact, Will and Anna both choose to spend evenings in the break room.

After Will’s blunt announcement of his fatherhood, Alex is alternately distant and forthcoming to Will. Alex wants to know (as does the audience) how his adoption came about. It doesn’t seem as though we learn any truths about Will’s life. However, Alex has found family with Leroy, his adopted brother. Despite his rebelliously worded tee shirts and his antisocial demeanor, Leroy is kind and loving to Alex.

Alex (l, Daniel Petzold) overwhelms Will (r, Robert Parsons) with one of his songs in Aurora Theatre Company’s “A Bright New Boise.” Photo: David Allen

Although Will’s church has disbanded, he nevertheless still believes in God and in the “rapture,” an event that will occur when evangelicals leave earth “to meet the Lord in the air,” and non-believers will be left on earth to repent their sins. He believes that there must be something more important and meaningful than life on earth. Despite many erroneous predictions of the timing of the rapture over the centuries, Will throws up his hands and cries to God, “Now!” several times during the play.

Anna escapes her sad home environment by reading at night in the break room. When she and Will meet there, Anna tries to befriend Will, but she is so socially awkward and uncomfortable that she can’t conduct a normal conversation. Will reveals to an impressed Anna that he is writing a blog about the rapture. Will cruelly scorns Anna’s invitation to attend her Lutheran church, because it is not the true word of God. Will thinks that his religion is the only way to lift oneself out of an ostensibly dismal world.

“A Bright New Boise” was a success in New York; it has been performed in many regional theaters to positive reviews. And there are some noteworthy aspects to the play. It’s rare that low wage retail workers are featured in modern theater. There are glimmers of existential discussions about God and God’s place in our world, but Will’s arrogant and superior attitude about the correctness of his brand of religion precluded a broader exploration. The troubled teen subplot would have been more interesting if teen problems were not ubiquitous in the play. The author is attempting to meld together too many elements to succeed at all of them.

The actual Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., an arts and crafts supply retailer is a privately held corporation with 573 large stores. The website notes a number of Christian organizations to which the corporation contributes, including Oral Robert University. In September 2012, Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit in its quest to block the section of the Affordable Care Act that requires the company to provide birth control insurance coverage for their employees. That case has wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will soon decide whether to hear it.

“A Bright New Boise” runs through December 8 at Aurora Theatre in downtown Berkeley. For information and tickets, visit Aurora Theatre online. 

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Emily S. Mendel

Freelancer Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although now a 37-year East Bay resident), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...