'Pocatello': Theater Review

Jeremy Daniel
Cameron Scoggins and T.R. Knight in "Pocatello"
Home is where the heartache is

T.R. Knight grapples with small-town solitude in a place that no longer feels like home in this new play from recent MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient Samuel D. Hunter

Samuel D. Hunter, who this year was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, one of the country's most prestigious and lucrative arts grants, writes with uncommon empathy about characters struggling with spiritual and emotional isolation in the Idaho settings where he grew up. Despite his plays' regional specificity, theatergoers from across America, and indeed much of the world, will recognize the escalating loss of identity triggered as mom-and-pop businesses make way for franchises and soulless strip malls. T.R. Knight gives raw, wrenching life to a man in the melancholy grip of that malaise in Pocatello, but this is a minor entry from the rising-star playwright.

It's tough to dramatize abject stasis, and while Hunter skillfully built emotional urgency and narrative momentum into more distinctive plays like A Bright New Boise and The Whale, this new work remains muted and numbingly downbeat despite its concluding note of hope. Even if it's a disappointment, however, there's much to appreciate in the writer's honest observations and compassionate human insights, as well as in the sensitive production of his regular collaborator, director Davis McCallum.

Knight plays Eddie, the local manager of an Italian chain restaurant in the eponymous Idaho town. The family-dining franchise is never named, but as designed with pinpoint-accurate, bland hominess by Lauren Helpern, the faux-Tuscan decor will suggest Olive Garden even to people who've never been closer to one than the TV commercials. It's indicative of the depths of the town's depression that this affordable soup-salad-and-breadsticks emporium can't hack it in the stagnant economy. But despite getting a firm closing date from corporate, Eddie has not informed his staff they're about to be unemployed. He's still hoping in vain that business will pick up enough to reverse the decision.

Like Annie Baker, another of the exciting crop of gifted playwrights to emerge in the past decade, Hunter has an impeccable ear for naturalistic dialogue. McCallum's cast perfectly captures the erratic rhythms of everyday speech in an opening scene with the kind of overlapping chatter that was a signature of Robert Altman movies. Even if we can't catch every word of the conversations going on at two separate tables of family groups, we hear enough to sense the general tetchiness. Discontent hangs in the air like the cheesy tarantella tunes pumped through the loudspeakers.

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At one table is Eddie's older brother Nick (Brian Hutchison), reluctantly returned to his hometown for the first time in four years; his wife, Kelly (Crystal Finn); and Eddie and Nick's widowed mother, Doris (Brenda Wehle). The latter is a disgruntled woman who lives locally but has little time for Eddie. His loneliness is compounded by the fact that he's gay, which brittle Doris has chosen never to mention again since he came out to her some years earlier.

At the other occupied table sit Tammy (Jessica Dickey), Becky (Leah Karpel) and Cole (Jonathan Hogan), the wife, daughter and father, respectively, of Troy (Danny Wolohan), one of the waiters. The disharmony evident in both groups makes a mockery of the cheery "Famiglia Week" banner festooned across the wall. The waitstaff, which includes Isabelle (Elvy Yost) and recovering meth-head Max (Cameron Scoggins), make ineffectual attempts at damage control, but friction at both tables terminates the meals abruptly.

We learn much of what we need to know about these people and the uneasy limbo they inhabit in the opening scene. But with a delicate hand, Hunter sketches in details that contextualize his characters' unhappiness. This is a town, like countless others, blighted by the death of local industry and the erosion of community as everything that was once familiar and comforting steadily disappeared — replaced by a Denny's, an Applebee's, a Burger King or a Home Depot. Even if he no longer recognizes it, Eddie still feels a romanticized attachment to this place where his great-grandpa built a homestead with his own hands. It's too painful for him to contemplate letting go of the belief that there's something left of it all.

Tragedy and childhood trauma have inflicted indelible scars on Eddie's family. Those memories make it acutely uncomfortable for Nick to be back in Pocatello, and continue to intrude on his own marriage. They also have led Doris to retreat into a self-protective shell of bitterness.

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Troy's family, by contrast, is in the grip of freshly unfolding sorrow. Like many angry 17-year-olds, Becky just wants to escape the stultifying town, but her fatalistic view of the world suggests she'll be no better off elsewhere. Cole is sliding into dementia, and alcoholic Tammy's dissatisfaction nudges her back toward the bottle.

The actors all etch real, relatable characters, each one with his or her respective sadness, selfishness or obliviousness. Dickey is particularly good as a woman who married and had a child too young, and is stuck in a confining situation that eats away at her affection for her husband and daughter, as well as for herself. But it's Knight who most tenderly embodies the play's cry for help against the inexorable eradication of a sense of belonging, as Eddie clutches at his own fractured family or the surrogate kinship of his employees. It's a wholly committed characterization of intense vulnerability, desperation and stubborn self-delusion.

However, in terms of its cumulative poignancy, Pocatello is underwhelming. As affecting as Knight is, Eddie's prostrate supplication becomes distancing. He's never able to articulate the reasons why he shouldn't pack up and transfer to a job at another branch of the restaurant in a bigger town where he might even have a shot at a fulfilling relationship. That, of course, is part of the point, but the reluctance to put it into words makes his anguish somewhat frustrating. And his closing moment of tentative connection lacks pathos because it involves a cold person whom we've been given no reason to care about.

Hunter's sincere investment in his characters, and in emotional truths that will resonate for many, is never in doubt. But the drama surrenders far too early to inescapable miserabilism, leaving it no place to go.

Cast: T.R. Knight, Jessica Dickey, Jonathan Hogan, Crystal Finn, Brian Hutchison, Leah Karpel, Cameron Scoggins, Brenda Wehle, Danny Wolohan, Elvy Yost

Director: Davis McCallum

Playwright: Samuel D. Hunter

Set designer: Lauren Helpern

Costume designer: Jessica Pabst

Lighting designer: Eric Southern

Sound designer: Matt Tierney

Presented by Playwrights Horizons

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