Joshua Morgan, Emily Townley, Felipe Cabezas, Michael Russotto and Kimberly Gilbert in the Woolly Mammoth’s production of “A Bright New Boise.” Photos by Stan Barouh.
There’s no shortage of man-made and natural disasters, political upheavals, economic collapse and nationwide pessimism dominating the current state of affairs. This bleak societal backdrop sets the stage for the religious fervor and search for deliverance at the heart of Samuel D. Hunter’s play, “A Bright New Boise,” at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C.
While the play delves into big existential questions about religion and the search for meaning, Hunter’s story is heartbreaking and humorous. The play takes place in employee break room of a Hobby Lobby, a fictionalized big-box crafts store in Boise, Idaho. The ensemble of employees is a comedic set of misfits, each struggling to find their way. The play’s central character, Will, is a piously religious man who arrives at the Hobby Lobby after fleeing his small hometown where his “end of days” church was embroiled in a scandal. He reconciles the disappointing world around him with his belief in the coming rapture.
“As secular humanists in this country, our initial reaction is just to say that fundamentalists believe because they are either dumb or crazy,” says Hunter, who grew up in Idaho and attended a fundamentalist Christian high school. Instead, he strives to give “a more honest look at how people live with their beliefs day-to-day and how their beliefs affect how they live.”
Art Beat talked to Hunter about “A Bright New Boise.” Read the Q-and-A after the jump.
ART BEAT: Tell us about the story of ‘A Bright New Boise.’
SAMUEL D. HUNTER: The basic story is one that we’ve probably seen before: a guy who gave up a son right after he was born and it’s 17 years later and now, because of some traumatic events in his life, he’s reaching out and trying to reconnect. But I think the greater story is about a man who is trying to reconcile his most deeply held beliefs with the world around him, and this attempt to reconcile with his son is his way of trying to reconcile his beliefs with the ‘real world.’
ART BEAT: You deal with religion in a lot of your plays. Why and how do you approach religion and especially extremist religious views?
SAMUEL D. HUNTER: I went to a fundamentalist Christian high school in Idaho, so that makes my relationship to that worldview complex in some ways. I have so many objections to it, but I’m also fascinated by religious extremism and religious people. It’s an issue that begs us to understand it in a more profound way than we do right now. Fundamentalist beliefs are things that many people, and certainly a theater-going audience in Washington, D.C., would initially find abhorrent or ridiculous. As secular humanists in this country, our initial reaction is just to say that fundamentalists believe because they are either dumb or crazy. ‘A Bright New Boise’ is trying to bring some humanity and empathy to these people who I think we have this knee jerk reaction to. I’m interested in a more honest look at how these people live with their beliefs and how their beliefs affect how they live. Fundamentalists are searching for meaning. It can be damaging but I think there needs to be a recognition of how religion organizes and gives structure to lives in a positive way.
ART BEAT: There is a lot of pessimism about the country’s current state and future direction. Did that influence your play at all?
SAMUEL D. HUNTER: Definitely. The initial idea for the main character’s belief in the rapture came in because the larger cultural dialogue has become so apocalyptic. Even among secular humanists, we are all so apocalyptic in our speech and our outlook right now. I think everyone has their own sort of ‘the-world-is-going-to-end’ scenario that they think is plausible. Maybe it’s not the rapture, but in our society, we’ve got environmental fears, economic fears, super diseases, we’ve got this list of things that show up on CNN on a daily basis that feel very apocalyptic.
There have been doomsday prophecies in civilization dating back to 90 A.D. and continuing on into modern day. It seems to me to be part of the human condition of always looking for this huge, dramatic end to happen in our lifetime.
I think that there is some comfort for a lot of people, religious or not, that there is going to be some massive event, whether it’s environmental, economical, moral, that is going to wipe the slate clean so we can start over. It’s sort of like the reset button on civilization. And then, in fact, a couple months after we closed the show in New York, there was this mass media coverage of Harold Camping of Family Radio predicting the rapture. And as much as I felt angry at him for making all these people spend so much money believing the rapture was near, in a way, my heart kind of went out to him, too.
ART BEAT: Why did you choose this setting of the break room of a big-box craft store?
SAMUEL D. HUNTER: In Will, I’m creating a character who is pining for the apocalypse, and so I need to put him in an environment where one would pine for the apocalypse. And the banal setting of a break room in a Walmart-style big-box store where people work minimum wage jobs helps create that situation of desperation. And also, this is a space and a condition that is repeated all across the country. The play takes place in Boise, but really it could be anywhere and is everywhere across the U.S. It’s easier to talk about these huge apocalyptic ideas when it’s contextualized within something so daily and quotidian that people know and recognize. In a larger sense, drama is about tension and conflict. It’s about conflict between characters but also conflict between ideas. A play about the apocalypse and a setting of a break room of a big-box store are such two different ideas that putting them together creates that tension.
ART BEAT: ‘A Bright New Boise’ has a lot of dark, existential themes, but there’s also quite a bit of humor. What is it that you hope audiences come away with when they finish watching the play?
SAMUEL D. HUNTER: I was just having this discussion with the directors doing my next play, because that play is similar in that it starts out really bouncy and then gets more and more disquieting as it continues. Part of it is that I don’t want anyone to feel like they’ve figured the play out when they walk in the door or 10 minutes into the play they think, ‘Oh, it’s this kind of play,’ and that they can put it in a box and then sit there and turn off and laugh when they need to laugh. It’s meant to be surprising, and it’s really taking an audience through a journey where they start off laughing with these people and having a good time, but then these existential, big-picture questions begin to override the humor and sort of swallow it up. I think that the journey is hopefully more meaningful for the audience because they’ve traversed a greater emotional distance with the characters. Humor allows us to understand people, and we invest in people when we are laughing and having a good time with them, so I think the tragedy and the questions that are left open at the end become more profound and stick with the audience more because they are emotionally tied to the characters.
“A Bright New Boise” runs thru Nov. 13 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C.