As I look back on my theatergoing in 2014, two of the best performances I have seen were in plays by Samuel D. Hunter: Gideon Glick's kinetic performance in as a teenager looking for a home in THE FEW at Rattlestick and T.R. Knight's total immersion into the lonely, desperate central character in POCATELLO. Hunter is an actors' playwright. He's also a theatrical poet whose terrain is the loneliness, anger and despair people can feel in twenty-first century America. His plays are set in the area in which he grew up, the towns and highways of Idaho.
The setting for POCATELLO, convincingly designed by Lauren Helpern, is one of those chain faux-Italian restaurants that offer large salads in plastic bowls and endless breadsticks. Within this restaurant, a group of people try to maintain a fantasy of family. Eddie (T.R. Knight), the manager, has invited his mother and his older brother and his wife who are visiting from St. Paul, to dinner. Eddie has been making a futile attempt to keep this failing restaurant afloat. His father owned a diner and killed himself when the business failed. Like everything else in this town, the restaurant Eddie manages is owned by a corporation, but Eddie cannot stand the idea of failing as his father did. He hasn't informed his workers that the restaurant is abut to shut down. Eddie wants and needs a sense of love and protection from his family, but they have moved on emotionally and geographically. His mother decided to distance herself from Eddie when she discovered he was gay. She feared that her closeness to him was a contributing factor. His brother can't stand being back in the town where his father killed himself. We see Eddie's panic mount as his behavior gets more and more erratic. A romantic would say that Eddie needs a boyfriend, a partner, but we don't see much sign that love and marriage make people happy in the land of chain restaurants and box stores. At a neighboring table we see the family of Troy (Danny Wolohan), one of Eddie's waiters. Troy's father is suffering from dementia and has been placed in the county home. He still suffers from losing the hardware store he once owned -- it has been replaced by a Home Depot. Troy's wife, who falls on and off the wagon, isn't quite ready to settle for a compromised life. Their seventeen-year-old daughter is obsessed with the poisons in everyone's food, water and air. Max (Cameron Scoggins), another waiter, has a drug problem.
POCATELLO is a better written twenty-first century version of Eugene O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH, but here there are no pipe dreams to stave off bleak reality. Yet, unlike O'Neill's lumbering play, POCATELLO doesn't feel bleak -- and it's half as long!. Hunter clearly loves all of his characters and he has the gift, through his graceful language, of making us care for them. Here are people who lead lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation, but there is grace and sometimes humor in the way they deal with the grayness of their lives. Only poor Eddie can't find a way to move on. He keeps trying to go back to the past, but that is impossible.
Under Davis McCallum's superb direction, the ten member cast are truly an ensemble, performing as if they have acted together for years and all totally convincing. At the center, T.R. Knight gives a beautifully nuanced performance, moving from sweetness and control to terror to heartbreak. His performance alone is reason to see POCATELLO, but it is only one of the play's many treasures.
Don't miss it!
POCATELLO. Playwrights Horizons. December 28, 2014.