It’s no longer his own private Idaho. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter continues to invent and share his stunning stories of lonely, isolated people who’ve been stuck in their own private connection to the State, capturing them at a significant moment in their lives that generally require some sort of a turning point.
The MacArthur Genius fellow has generated an impressive output of worthy work, including his award winning “The Whale,” as well as other notable productions including “The Few,” “A Great Wilderness,” and “Pocatello,” each of which contain heartbreaking character studies of struggling, lost souls. One of his new works, “Lewiston,” is receiving a heartfelt and astute world premiere production at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, under the insightful and careful direction of the theater’s former Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, who now helms the California Shakespeare Theatre.
“Lewiston” is one of a pair of new works by Hunter, that are inspired by the expedition of Lewis and Clark, after whom the cross-river towns of Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington, are named. “Clarkston” opened earlier this year at the Dallas Theatre Center. “Lewiston” is connected to the Lewis and Clark history on several levels in addition to the town’s name. Meriwether Lewis is supposedly an ancestor of two of the main characters in the work, and an important unseen character is heard via audio tape recording her thoughts as she hikes the final portion of Lewis and Clark’s trail from Lewiston to the Pacific.
Hunter sets “Lewiston” on the edge of town, in early July, at a roadside fireworks stand, where we meet Alice and Connor, lifelong friends and currently housemates, as they sit and chat on adjacent 60’s-era lawn chairs waiting for the rare customer. Idaho has outlawed all but the safest type of so-called fireworks, only allowing such items as sparklers and modest ground-set stars and spinners. Wilson Chin has designed a remarkable set that fits comfortably onto Long Wharf’s Stage II, anchored by the large stand itself, replete with patriotic décor and a vast assemblage of fireworks, next to a parched section of farmland where Alice and Connor sit, with the corrugated suggestion of an abandoned truck lining the back of the stage.
The 50-ish Alice is marvelously played by Randy Danson, who endows her character with an ironic even lacerating wit meant to keep everyone at a distance. There’s a sense of the survivor in Danson’s performance, as well as undercurrents of loneliness and isolation that seem to have been kept at bay for multiple years. Alice is a curmudgeon who we learn is preparing for the funeral of a ne’er do well distant cousin, the last relative she has in the area.
Connor, as embodied by an on-target Martin Moran, best known perhaps for his stage performance in his adaptation of his memoir, “The Tricky Part,” clearly clings to Alice for friendship and human connection, which serves to only minimally dispel his self-loathing resulting from his homosexuality, which definitely looked down upon in this part of northern Idaho. Both actors believably reflect the multi-year friendship of the pair through cantankerous arguments and the carefully phrased discussions that reflect the limits of the closeness each party puts on their relationship.
Into their lives arrives the twenty-ish Marnie, Alice’s diffident and difficult granddaughter, played with a cautious and resentful distance that gradually grows into something slightly warmer by the very able Arielle Goldman. Marnie grew up in Lewiston, but moved away to the Seattle area with her negligent father after the suicide of her mother, Alice’s daughter, in the nearby Snake River, when Marie was a pre-teen. We learn that Marnie’s mother had just completed her multi-week hike along the final stretch of the Lewis and Clark trail prior to her suicide and now Marnie is obsessed with listening to her mother’s recorded comments, voiced with a sense of awe and resignation by Lucy Owen, that have been passed on to her from her father.
Marnie, it turns out, has been turned out and bought out by her colleagues at the Seattle natural food co-op that she founded a number of years before with money supposedly left to her by her mother. Upon arriving, she sets herself up in immediate opposition to Alice, who has been offered a tidy sum and a two-bedroom condominium to sell the remains of the family farm to a developer. Marnie would like to start over and open an organic farm on this land, which she feels she has a proprietary right to, because of her mother. A large part of this one-act 90-minute play focuses on the ways that Marnie and Alice bump into each other over the course of the days leading up to the Fourth of July, in stubbornness and silence, while the mild-mannered Connor tries to serve as peacemaker. There are secrets that get revealed and others that stay unrevealed, and one character makes a life-changing decision perhaps in sacrifice to further another relationship.
Ting maintains a steady pace, sometimes lackadaisical as reflective of the circumstances, but never boring, thanks also to the incisiveness of the performances. Ting, who directed Hunter’s “A Great Wilderness” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival two years ago, clearly understands the playwright and knows how to meticulously present his characters. This is a thoughtful, subtle staging, in which was not is said is as important as what is said.
Mathew Richards has provided lighting effects that are essential to establishing the mood of the production, from the bright, almost searing light of the hot days beside the asphalt, to the haunting darkness as the colored string lights of the stand are reflected on what remains of the crops and foliage behind. Paloma Young’s costumes reflect the personalities of Hunter’s characters, notably showcasing Alice’s extreme discomfort (and the audience’s as we watch) in her black funeral dress. Brandon Wolcott’s sound design allows Marnie’s mother’s voice to be expressed resolutely between scenes, along with the hints of fireworks in the distance and once or twice, the surprise of a loud noise from a remnant of stand’s long-forgotten days.
“Lewiston” is a fine and touching way for those unfamiliar with Hunter to be introduced to his growing oeuvre and absolutely mandatory for anyone who has been following this young writer’s burgeoning career. It’s enough to make me curious about “Clarkston” and hope that perhaps Ting can be invited back in the future to let the Long Wharf audience find out what’s been happening on the other side of the River.
“Lewiston” runs through May 1 at Long Wharf’s Stage II. For information and tickets, contact the theater’s Box Office at 203.787.4282 or 800.782.8497 or visit the theater’s web site at www.longwharf.org.