If Tolstoy was right—that in all great literature, a man either goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town—there's hardly a clearer example of the latter than A Bright New Boise. Samuel D. Hunter's Obie-winning 2011 play follows Will, a middle-aged religious zealot who has left his northern Idaho home for Boise. There, he finds work at a Hobby Lobby, a big-box craft store, and proceeds to upend the lives of those around him. But through it all, Will remains eerily calm—or perhaps not calm, but rather unreadable, impassive, vacant. He's like the hub of a wheel, hardly stirring as those around him spin out of control.
It's an intriguing but challenging premise: Here's a central character who seems so static yet still provokes such turmoil. This Third Rail Rep production, directed by John Vreeke, rockets out of the gates and hits many of the right notes, but flags somewhat as it goes on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the stumbles come from the character of Will, played by Tim True. Generally magnetic and adaptable, here True can be so inscrutable that he grows blank. His character has come to Boise to flee a shameful religious past, namely his involvement in a cultlike church. But early on in the play, we learn of his connection—not to be revealed here—to the teenage Alex (Andy Lee-Hillstrom, propelled by nerves and anger), an anxious misfit who also works at the Hobby Lobby. Under the fluorescent lights of the employee break room, Will and Alex trade dialogue marked by fits and starts, or interrupted by the entrance of another blue-vested worker: Jacklyn Maddux's sailor-mouthed and corporate-minded supervisor, Pauline; Kerry Ryan's bumbling loner, who hides in the silk-flower section after hours and jabbers without thinking; and Chris Murray's misguided art student, who tries to shake up customers by wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "FUCK" or "CUNT." These actors play their tragicomic roles deftly.
Hunter, the playwright, has a knack for textured dialogue that is outwardly direct but scrapes at something darker. "Is it too much to ask that we have a normal fucking workday here?" asks Pauline. Alex's frequent refrain—"I'm gonna kill myself"—rings with teenage impetuosity while hinting at higher stakes. But A Bright New Boise never lays all its cards on the table. Frustrating, maybe, but given each character's fumbling search for meaning, ultimately fitting.
SEE IT: A Bright New Boise is at the Winningstad Theatre, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway, 235-1101. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays through June 23. $22.25-$41.25.