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The End isn’t nearly nigh enough for Will, the salvation-seeking wretch at the center of Samuel D. Hunter’s dark but deeply empathetic comedy, A Bright New Boise. As embodied by Michael Russotto in a masterful, layered performance as free of condescension as Hunter’s Obie Award-winning script, Will is the keeper of loneliness so palpable we can feel it before he’s uttered a word. An Evangelical desperate for Armageddon to arma-geddonwithit, he’s too skittish and guarded to be likable, but you’ve no heart if you don’t end up loving him.
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When we meet him, he’s muddling through a job interview at the big-box arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby, trying not to be distracted by the surgical videos that mysteriously appear on the break-room television. (It’s supposed to be showing an employee propaganda video, which we see in snippets later.) Sound designer Chris Baine’s white-noise pattern of passing cars and set designer Misha Kachman’s parking-lot light towers convincingly evoke the Best Buy and (formerly) Borders-bedecked nowheres abutting eight-lane stretches of asphalt all over America. No wonder Will feels so little connection to this ugly, temporary world. A low-wage retail job might be the only employment open to him in the wake of a well-publicized scandal at the church of which Will was a senior member, but he has a specific and compelling reason for wanting this one.
“I’ll bring you on full-time as soon as I can,” the manager (a profane but tender Emily Townley) tells him. “Until then, you work 38 hours a week.” Exploitative corporate employers aren’t the target here though, nor, more surprisingly, is fundamentalist Christianity. That’s because Hunter isn’t interested in targets. What Raptures his indelible scenario far above lazy satire is the way it affords each of its five characters—all Hobby Lobby employees—their dignity. Hunter refuses to mock these people for actually caring about, variously, their faith, their art, or their job, which makes his matter-of-fact observations of their motives and behavior even funnier. It also gives us an emotional stake in their fates. It’s a superb piece of writing.
The company is as rich as the material. Townley finds notes of sympathy in the beleaguered boss who could easily be a stock villain. Joshua Morgan—half of the very funny duo Assembly Required—here matches his strong dramatic turn in Arena Stage’s The Chosen earlier this year as Alex, a tightly wound kid who composes avant-garde music and avoids small talk at work by pretending not to speak English. Felipe Cabezas is his protective foster sibling, the biological son of the drunks who adopted Alex. He sees his job as an ongoing, confrontational performance-art project, forcing old ladies to drink deep of his homemade “FUCK” T-shirt if they want his expertise in choosing quilting supplies. Woolly regular Kimberly Gilbert plays Anna, a girl who isn’t allowed to read at home in her dad’s house. She takes a shine to Will after he confides in her about the online novel he’s publishing, a Left Behind-style eschatological serial.
For all his yearning for the next world, Will has a mission to fulfill in this one that believers and non- should find equally important. As the sky darkens above the Hobby Lobby’s sodium halo, his problems become our problems. In an age wherein secular and evangelical people increasingly talk about rather than to one another, a comedy wherein they’re forced to share a break-room microwave feels more urgent than any pedantic issue play. None shall know the day or hour.