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A CurtainUp Review

"History is different when you're six years old. They don't tell you the truth until you're at least fifteen. And even then, they leave out the bad parts."
—Alice, Lewiston
"I wonder if they knew then that someday there wouldn't be any more pioneers. That like two-hundred years later pretty much no matter where you live in America, you have a car and can drive to Costco."
—Jake, Clarkston
Leah Karpel (foreground) and Kristin Griffith (background) in Lewiston (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Noah Robbins (seated) and Edmund Donovan (standing) in Clarkston (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Some people—especially coastal elites—talk about disillusionment with the American experiment as if it's something new, a product of the 2016 election and its aftermath. In reality, the election was hardly a cause, but rather a symptom of something brewing for much longer.

Between the coasts, over decades, small towns across the country have been transformed as the outsourcing of labor closed factories and the rise of big box or online retail shuttered main street. For many, all this has led to a reckoning with the possibility that the American promise of prosperity, of new beginnings and of hard work getting its just reward, is not for them, if it ever even existed in the first place.

Samuel D. Hunter, drawing on his own Idaho upbringing, sets his plays throughout this America, from the Hobby Lobby of 2010's A Bright New Boise to the trailer office of a newspaper for interstate truckers in 2013's The Few. A linked pair of plays from 2015 and 2016 visit the twin cities of Lewiston, ID, and Clarkston, WA; in each, Hunter follows a descendent of the town's eponymous Pacific Northwest explorer, looking back on the myths of the past and forward towards the uncertainty of the future.

Lewiston and Clarkston were always meant to be performed together, and Hunter's vision has now come to pass in a gripping diptych production directed by Davis McCallum at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The two works are kept at some distance from one another: each has its own cast, the theater is rearranged into a different seating configuration between the two, and a standard intermission is replaced with a full dinner break (with catering options available).

But both plays package similar themes into very different stories. In their retrospective moments, they offer windows onto our struggles with the burdens of history—one's own as well as the mythic American past that's used to shape our values from youth. Looking to the future, they grapple with the pressure for forward motion that's implicit in the legacies of national explorer heroes like Lewis and Clark.

In Lewiston, Marnie (Leah Karpel) returns to the land her family has lived on for generations long after her mother's death caused a rift between her and her grandmother Alice (Kristin Griffith). The verdant setting she remembers from her youth has disappeared as the financially strapped Alice has sold off most of the land to a condominium developer, with the last bit soon to go. Marnie's return not only provokes a reckoning between her and Alice, but also for Alice's roommate Connor (Arnie Burton), who confronts questions about his identity and desires.

Across the river, Jake (Noah Robbins), a recent college grad from Connecticut, has abruptly left home to head west, stopping in Clarkston and getting a job at Costco. There he meets Chris (Edmund Donovan), an aspiring writer trying to navigate his next steps and his relationship with his recovering-addict mom (Heidi Armbruster).

Within the tight confines of the gutted Rattlestick space, where the risers have been replaced with a tight ring of folding chairs for the audience of fifty-one (Dane Laffrey did the set design), McCallum is able to rely on no subtlety going unnoticed. His direction in both plays is understated and naturalistic, making it easy to become immersed in the drama even when another section of the audience is always in view.

Lewiston is, arguably, a story about ghosts, with Alice and Marnie struggling with their memories of Marnie's mother while Connor sorts through his relationship with his pastor father. The conflict in this first play draws more on what has happened in the past rather than anything we actually witness.

When Griffith and Karpel look at one another, their faces show how much is left unsaid between their characters. The grandmother and granddaughter have an uncomfortable relationship that threatens to erupt at any moment, and it hardly feels like a coincidence that the major set piece is Alice's fireworks stand. The play is, after all, literally filled with powderkegs waiting to burst.

But it is Clarkston that ultimately steals the show with its wrenching portrait of lives coming undone. Jumping from moments of unbridled optimism to fatalism, the play takes the core of a classic coming of age narrative and tints it with a host of challenges, from addiction to disease to sexual identity and discrimination. Jake and Chris are an odd pair, but the play makes a touching case for why they need each other, sensitively enacted by Robbins and Donovan.

The emotional climax of the play is a scene between Chris and Trish, stunningly acted by Donovan and Armbruster. The performances are vulnerable and utterly convincing as they grapple with the intense conflict of the characters. Like Jake, all we can do is sit by and watch, powerless to help in a moment of unmistakable weight. And despite the heaviness of the scene and the circumstances surrounding it, which could easily be overwritten or overwrought, the playwright and the director's touches are laudably restrained and nearly imperceptible.

One place where Hunter's voice is more pronounced is in his focus on gay characters, who feature prominently throughout his plays. On the one hand, one can't help but see recycling in these characters, the kind of working within a comfort zone that risks unoriginality. In particular, Jake, as played by Robbins, bears many similarities to The Few's Matthew, played by Gideon Glick in McCallum's 2014 Rattlestick production. Yet the queer perspectives embedded here also serve to effectively represent and heighten a universal sense of alienation and estrangement that is pervasive in both plays.

It further intensifies this mood to be in such tight proximity to the action of the play while being worlds away; as the characters pull us in, having a constant awareness of the theater and the audience remind us of our limitations as spectators. Laffrey's immersive set design is nicely complemented by Fitz Patton's restrained soundscape. Stacey Derosier's light design makes inventive use of the normally blocked windows along the sides of the theater to further blur the distinction between the plays' environments and the venue itself. And the close quarters offer a better opportunity to appreciate the simple, yet finely tuned, costume design by Jessica Wegener Shay.

But there's also some comfort to be found in the intimacy of the physical space, and in the structure of the evening around a dinner break that will lead to new conversations and connections. Hunter's diptych, thoughtfully written and powerfully staged, is challenging and emotionally taxing. But for the night of the performance, it has also served to bring us together.

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by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Davis McCallum
Lewiston cast: Arnie Burton (Connor), Kristin Griffith (Alice), and Leah Karpel (Marnie)
Clarkston cast: Heidi Armbruster (Trisha), Edmund Donovan (Chris), Noah Robbins (Jake)
Set design by Dane Laffrey
Costume design by Jessica Wegener Shay
Lighting design by Stacey Derosier
Sound design by Fitz Patton
Production Stage Managers: Joanne Pan and Katie Young
Running Time: About 3 hours and 45 minutes total (two 1 hour and 30 minute plays, with a meal served in between)
Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, just off Seventh Avenue
From 10/10/18; opening 10/25/18; closing 12/2/18 (extended to 12/16/18).
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 11/2/18 performance

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