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Theater rarely gets more physically and emotionally intimate than the pair of one-acts by Samuel D. Hunter being given their New York City premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Although they have been presented individually in regional theaters, this is the first time the interrelated 90-minute dramas have been paired together. The result, dubbed Lewiston/Clarkston, is chamber theater of the most deeply moving kind, its combined three-and-a-half hours flying by.
The playwright, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient whose previous works include The Whale and A Bright New Boise, specializes in bringing the lives of ordinary people at emotional crossroads to the stage. Such is the case with these two plays revolving around modern-day descendants of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. For this production, the small theater has been entirely reconfigured into an empty playing area with seating for 51 audience members. During the break between the two plays, we sit together at communal tables eating either catered meals purchased in advance or whatever food we’ve brought along with us.
The first play, Lewiston, is set in the titular Idaho town where Alice (Kristin Griffith) and her younger, platonic roommate Connor (Arnie Burton) operate a roadside stand selling fireworks to few customers. They’re visited one day by a young female backpacker who is soon revealed to be Marnie (Leah Karpel), the 24-year-old granddaughter Alice hasn’t seen in 15 years, since Marnie’s mother committed suicide.
Marnie has arrived for a reason. She’s intent on purchasing the last parcel of the land that her grandmother has been selling off to real estate developers for years. And she’s got the money to pay for it, having done well for herself running an “urban farm” in Seattle. She promptly pitches a tent next to the stand, refusing to leave until she gets what she wants.
Connor serves as an awkward mediator in the resulting verbal sparring matches between the two strong-willed women, sometimes finding himself caught in the crossfire. Marnie accuses him of being a “closeted gay guy” who needs to “self-actualize.” A committed vegetarian, she also disdains his former profession of butcher. He informs her that he started out as a taxidermist, but “art doesn’t pay the bills.”
That exchange gives you an indication of the subtle, sly humor infusing the piece, which depicts its emotionally struggling characters with tenderness and compassion. The women are both haunted by the death of Marnie’s mother, whose voice we hear via audiocassette diaries that Marnie listens to for solace and in the hope of understanding the reasons for her death. By the play’s end, a truce has been reached but little has been resolved, as is so often the case in life.
The play benefits greatly from the excellent performances, with Griffith astutely mixing prickliness and tenderness as Alice; Burton both affecting and funny as the loyal Connor, who by play’s end takes steps to regain his independence; and Karpel infusing the occasionally strident Marnie with redeeming vulnerability.
Clarkston, the second piece, is largely set in the warehouse section of a Costco in the Washington town of the same name. Working the overnight shift are two twentysomething employees, the veteran Chris (Edmund Donovan) and the newbie Jake (Noah Robbins), whose job is to stock the shelves with such merchandise as big-screen televisions and giant boxes of popcorn and candy. Jake has recently arrived in town, taking a break from a cross-country road trip following the path of his distant ancestor Clark.
Shortly into their first shift together, the delicate-looking, physically slight Jake begins dropping things. He reveals that he suffers from Huntington’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition that will eventually kill him. “Basically, my body is gonna forget how to be alive,” he explains.
The two men soon enter into a tentative physically romantic relationship, although the skittish Chris is constantly in fear of being discovered. They open up to each other emotionally as well. Jake laments his useless education in which he majored in “post-colonial gender studies.” Chris talks about his dream of writing fiction, having recently applied to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
It’s eventually revealed that he’s been fending for himself for many years, having been brought up by a drug-addicted mother, Trisha (Heidi Armbruster), who used the money he saved up for college to fund her meth habit. She’s now been clean for six months, working as a waitress at Denny’s and desperate to be a part of her son’s life.
Clarkston deftly works in elements related to Lewis and Clark with discussions about the explorers’ historical legacy. Chris argues that they were merely “glorified colonialists,” while Jake laments, “It’s a terrible time to be alive — there’s nothing left to discover.” But the play’s main theme is the growing bond between the two young men that enables them to overcome their deepest fears and despair.
Toward the end, there’s an encounter between Chris and his mother that is as shattering and gut-wrenching a scene as you’ll ever see onstage. But the play ends on a sweet, hopeful note that sends you out of the theater smiling. All three actors deliver performances of such raw, naked vulnerability, enhanced by the extremely close proximity, that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on intensely private moments of people you don’t always like but come to deeply understand.
Davis McCallum’s superb staging makes excellent use of the versatile space, with Dane Laffrey’s minimal but evocative set designs efficiently shifting the theater’s configuration among the two plays and dining interlude. By the evening’s end, you’ll have a palpable sense of having shared something special with your fellow theatergoers.
Venue: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, New York
Cast: Arnie Burton, Kristin Griffith, Leah Karpel, Heidi Armbruster, Edmund Donovan, Noah Robbins
Playwright: Samuel D. Hunter
Director: Davis McCallum
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Jessica Wegener Shay
Lighting designer: Stacey Derosier
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
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