Every once in awhile, a play comes along that is stunning in its simplicity and brilliance. Written by Samuel D. Hunter, “Clarkston” explores the relationship between Jake and Chris, two clerks who stock at Costo in Washington State, in the late, late hours when the store is closed. Both are gay, but Chris is pretty deep in the closet, and Jake, though he hasn’t had to deal with homophobia, has Huntington’s disease. In addition, Chris is struggling to get by on his own, because he cannot live with his manipulative, meth-head mother. In other words, both these young men are dealing with traumatic situations, through no fault of their own. Jake’s life will be cut short, painfully, and it can’t be easy for Chris to disengage his own mother (Trisha) for the sake of his own emotional balance. Trisha isn’t just an addict, she’s a predatory addict.
When Jake starts his first shift at Costco he reveals he’s on a kind of vision quest to Chris. He’s consumed by the journals of Lewis and Clark, and wishes to find a particular key point in which the two experienced a profound epiphany, as they followed the path of the river. Chris points out that the context of modern civilization (Costcos and Dennys wherever you go) probably diminishes the impact of duplicating their moment, but it doesn’t bother Jake. Whether it’s because his days are numbered, or he cares too much, too soon, Jake starts to interfere in Chris’ personal life, and presume an intimacy he hasn’t actually earned.
Hunter has made several choices that are compelling and inspired. Neither Chris nor Jake are effeminate. They’re not butch, but they aren’t campy. They’re just guys. Sadly, this probably makes it easier for most of the audience to identify with them. It shouldn’t be that way, but it set’s a tone. A strategy. When the two attempt sex outdoors (just like Clark & Lewis?) it feels ordinary, flawed, awkward. Just like for everybody else. Sex isn’t always magic. Sometimes it’s just raw and disappointing.
The third thing is their ordeals. Horrible death and toxic mom. When you do this to your two protagonists, and your two protagonists are gay, it raises questions, because it must. Jake has Huntington’s disease because it’s a metaphor for his lot as a gay man, or it’s another burden in his life (in addition to being gay) or he has a terminal illness because gay folks aren’t exempt from catastrophe. If we are engaged at all, these questions arise. Even if you are the most evolved gay guy in the world, you always know there are people somewhere, who think it’s perfectly okay to kill you. And isn’t that tragedy enough for one lifetime? What does God want from Chris and Jake? What does he want from any of us?
Clarkston is a jarring, excruciating, overwhelming and deeply touching experience. One of the best plays in years. Hunter invites us into the lives of these two, desperately trying to rise, while the American dream takes a nosedive and explodes. Like Lewis and Clark they need to push the wasteland aside and find some scrap of encouragement in a cannibalistic, chaotic culture where even parents have lost their sense of affection and grace. Hunter gives us just enough to stir our pulse and jolt our wretched hearts. To build a shrine to our fading humanity.
The Dallas Theater Center presents Clarkson, playing December 3rd-January 31st, 2015. Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. ATT Performing Arts Center. 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202. www.attpac.org