A deep well of loneliness is shot straight through the heart of Pocatello, Samuel D. Hunter’s incredibly affecting new play now having its world premiere at Playwright Horizons. Hunter, a sort of chronicler of lost souls (his past plays include A Bright New Boise and The Whale, both outstanding and gut-wrenching), has this time chosen as his subject a chain restaurant in Pocatello, Idaho — a symbol of melancholy sameness in modern-day America.
The unnamed chain restaurant here most closely resembles an Olive Garden thanks to its Italian flair and propensity for breadsticks. Its manager, Eddie (T.R. Knight) is a reserved, workaday guy struggling to keep the place afloat despite warnings from corporate that the place may go under in less than a week. Hunter, a master of his craft, sets the scene in an impressive opening scene featuring all ten of his characters in overlapping conversation, snatches of which we grasp onto here and there, feeding us bits of information about the characters.
We find out, economically, that Eddie’s brother Nick (Brian Hutchison) is in town with his wife Kelly (Crystal Finn), and that they, along with his mother (Brenda Wehle, pitch-perfect), are eating that night at the restaurant as part of “Famiglia Week,” a last-ditch effort on Eddie’s part to reunite his broken family in an attempt to reconnect in spite of past family tragedy. His waitstaff — Isabelle (Elvy Yost), Max (Cameron Scoggins), and Troy (Danny Wolohan) — have only a few tables to cover. Basically, it’s just Eddie’s family (who end up walking out due to a shortage of gluten-free pasta) and Troy’s family — his wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey), his father Cole (Jonathan Hogan), who’s in a nursing home, and his daughter Becky (Leah Karpel), whose fixation with her food’s origins has been causing her increasing anxiety.
Eddie’s plight is at the heart of Hunter’s exploration of isolation and longing. An uncomfortably out gay man in a largely homogenous town, Eddie doesn’t have a romantic life to speak of, and his family life has been torn apart by his father’s tragic death when he was only 13. In an attempt to reconcile with his brother, he invites them back to the restaurant for a second meal and cooks them a dish that only serves to represent the rift in their family: a casserole his dad used to make, which serves as a happy memory to him but as an uncovered wound to his brother and mother, who have a hard time moving on as a family.
It becomes clear mid-way through Pocatello that Hunter knows all too well that time can’t heal all wounds, or that, if it can, possibly, it does so slowly. It’s when the lights are off in the restaurant and its doors are closed that some of the most interesting work of the play occurs, as could be predicted. Hunter’s play resounds so deeply because of that interplay between the daylight world, where life’s drama occurs accompanied by the strains of a bad country song, and the world after hours, when addictions resurface, the inevitable decline can’t be slowed, and, sometimes, in a moment, redemption is possible.
Knight does very fine work here as a sort of everyman figure, but he’s matched by a uniformly excellent cast (expertly directed by Davis McCallum, Hunter’s frequently collaborator), particularly Wehle as his mother and Leah Karpel as Becky, whom Eddie takes on as a temporary waitress during a week when she’s suspended from school. Becky, who’s still in school and just beginning to learn about life’s disappointments, relates unexpectedly to Eddie, though the play’s ending suggests that both may come to find at least some modicum of happiness within their less-than-ideal surroundings.
To my mind, Pocatello serves as the pinnacle of Hunter’s writing to date, impressively managing to tie up the stories of its ten characters with a satisfying degree of closure and perfectly encapsulating the dead-end feeling of 21st-Century America. Near the play’s end, Eddie recalls spending time at his great-grandfather’s abandoned house and then heading back to the long stretch of chain stores in town:
“There’s the Starbucks. The Walmart. The Burger King. The Wendy’s. The Staples. The K-mart. The Best Buy. The McDonalds. The Safeway. The Home Depot. The Olive Garden.”
It’s a litany we can all relate to (hell, he could very well be describing our walk to the theatre) — whether in New York, where local businesses disappear in favor of national chains, or in small towns across America — but not just in terms of businesses, in terms of the homogenization of our lives and the ways technology and expansion have made us all, in a way, slaves to a corporate culture that makes us drones in an ant farm the scale of which we can’t even conceive.
It’s a well of sadness that we live in, for the duration of Pocatello but also after its conclusion, and it’s Hunter’s potent portrait of that world — and his depiction of one man’s search for a sense of self within that devouring well — that makes the play one of the truest and best I’ve seen this year.