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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Certainly, in plays such as A Bright New Boise, A Permanent Image and The Whale, love shines through the bitterness. Witness Pocatello, a tangled reflection on the nature of home and family that is as achingly beautiful as it is squirm-inducing.
Directing the work's west coast premiere for the Rogue Machine Theatre Company (which has now staged three of Hunter's plays), company artistic director John Perrin Flynn and his pitch perfect cast get right to the heart of Hunter's ambivalence and put it all on magnificently messy display. Pocatello may well be a play that Idaho State Convention and Visitor Bureau would like you to shun, but it's a work of beauty all the same.
In Eddie, the haunted restauranteur trying to keep both his family and his franchised Italian restaurant from crumbling, Hunter has crafted a deeply layered loser. Matthew Elkins, Rogue Machine's producing artistic director, embodies this Willy Loman of the Northwest with such heart-rending honesty that you could weep for the man. It's a masterful piece of acting in a production full of equally high caliber performances.
We open during lunchtime. The vaguely tacky hanging decorations in Eddie's restaurant (designed by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) proclaim this to be Famiglia Week. The cheapo franchised eatery is typically low on customers, but Eddie has somehow dragooned members of his family to stop by for a meal. At one table sits Eddie's older brother Nicky (Rob Nagle) and Nicky's wife Kelly (Rebecca Larsen). For Nicky, who is bound for Sun Valley, every moment spent in Pocatello is like undergoing a root canal. The boys' mother, Doris, (Anne Gee Byrd) still lives in town, but she and Eddie don't see each other much, and Doris seems to prefer it that way. One table over is restaurant regular Tammy (Tracie Lockwood), her hugely pissed off teenage daughter Becky (Eden Brolin) and her father-in-law Cole (Mark L. Taylor). Tammy's husband Troy (Justin Okin) has been a waiter at this restaurant for going on eight years since the local mill shut down. This is a birthday celebration of sorts for Tory's dad, Cole, who has been placed in a seniors home. Troy and Tammy's marriage is on the rocks, and their socially conscious Becky is perpetually in trouble at school. In addition to Troy, Eddie's staff includes free-spirited waitress Isabelle (Melissa Paladino) and Max (Trevor Peterson), a former drug addict who, because of his history, is virtually unhirable, unless he's working for Eddie.
Where his family and employees are concerned, Eddie has a heart of 24 karat gold, but circumstances are not in his favor. Old family demons are blocking his attempt to reconnect with his brother. With the town's economy failing, the corporate office has ordered Eddie to close his restaurant. Eddie is not willing to give up without a fight, and he hasn't told any of his staff that they will soon be unemployed. He even hires Becky to bus tables after she is suspended from school.
In the midst of Famiglia Week, then, Eddie tries to rebuild his relationship with his brother, keep his sinking business afloat, fix the problems of his staff and come to terms with some of his own darkness. This would be a tall order for any kind of hero, and our Eddie is an ordinary man.
Both in this opening scene and subsequently, Flynn places scenes of intense family discord side by side, fighting for Eddie or his staff's attention. So you get individuals griping about gluten-free pasta in one corner (the restaurant doesn't serve it) and people barfing one table over. Fun stuff and, once characters' secrets start emerging, the angst is just getting started.
Across the board, Hunter's characters are largely selfish, petty, spiteful and, yes, quite human. Yet the restaurant, as crappy and tacky as it may be, is somehow their haven: the only place where they can crash, tryst, nurse their wounds or find a sympathetic ear as the need dictates. As important as the restaurant is to him, Eddie's roots spread out even farther to a decaying homestead once owned by his grandfather somewhere out in the nearby woods.
Over the course of Pocatello's95 minutes, Flynn's cast serve up scene after scene of dead end characters facing off against their own desperation. Paladino's Isabelle offers a moment of comfort to Lockwood's quickly unraveling Tammy and lives to regret her generosity. Late in the play, Brolin (the third generation of an acting family that includes her father Josh and grandfather, James) has a lovely scene with Taylor's Cole. Taylor, so crusty to begin with, partners her expertly, showing that this addled patriarch still has some wisdom left.
As strong as the cast is, the play rests with Eddie. A tall man whose doughy face quietly registers every hurt, Elkins convincingly portrays a man who is lost, but perhaps not yet broken. Pocatello concludes with a memorable encounter over a meal between Elkins and the formidable Anne Gee Byrd. In an establishment and a town as doomed as this one is, a long overdue mother-son connection is a welcome ray of light.