(Spoiler alert: I like to say what I’m thinking – no big surprise there. As I’m percolating, I’m sure I’m going to say things that are considered spoilers. I’ve never really cared much about spoilers, but they’re kind of a “thing” so consider this your advance notice.)
This season, the Empire Theatre Company took on the theme of “What do you believe?” though as the season comes to a close, it seems that a better question might have been “What is blind faith costing you?” Spring Awakening, the season opener, featured high school students under the grip of religious and social tyranny; the lack of open discussion on sexuality lead to one character’s suicide and another’s death during childbirth. Doubt, the next production, grappled with the consequences of faith, how it can destroy the life of another. Sister Aloysius achieves her goal, potentially ruining a man’s career in the process, and is herself tormented by doubts in her own convictions. Things were a little more light-hearted this winter with the first regional production of The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, a show that playfully toyed with the belief in Santa over any deeper religious concerns. As the ETC rounds out their season with the latest production, Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise, director Chris Berg once again challenges the audience to examine what happens when a person holds onto their beliefs blindly without thinking of the potential costs.
The play opens with Will (Darin Kerr – check out our profile of him HERE) interviewing for a job at Hobby Lobby with the foul-mouthed corporate cheerleader Pauline (Nicole Quam). Hobby Lobby is known for its vocal support of fundamentalist Christian “values,” and Pauline is presented as the embodiment of their hypocrisy: she supports their public values so long as it is a way to keep the store successful and sell their products to the masses. Christian values take a backseat to profits, and she’s much more concerned with the potential for Will to be a potential union agitator than whether he actually believes in anything.
But Will does believe in something; he believes that the end of the world is coming. He’s writing an online novel on his blog about the Rapture. This draws the attention of awkward but likeable Anna (Anna Pieri), who loves to read. When Will hides in the store after hours to work on his blog, he finds that Anna has done the same thing to spend some time alone reading. As their friendship develops, she tries to get more information about his writing but he is reluctant to share. Anna is ditzy but charming, and her attempts to invite Will to attend her Lutheran church with her highlight the difference between her casual acquaintance with religion and the growing evidence of Will’s fanatic beliefs.
But Will is not working at Hobby Lobby to further his writing or to find a love interest; he’s there to connect with his son Alex (Jackson Holm) who was given up for adoption by his maternal grandparents not long after his birth. Alex is a brooding teenager prone to panic attacks who loves modern composition; he’s angry at Will’s appearance at his workplace and at first resists building any sort of relationship with him. Though he thaws slightly, he still feels a great deal of betrayal as the foster family that took him in are not the good Christian folks they present themselves to be.
Will’s attempts to build a relationship with Alex are complicated by Leroy (Christopher Olsen), a pretentious hipster who delights in wearing aggressively offensive t-shirts while peddling art supplies to Midwestern housewives. He is also Alex’s adoptive brother and the only one who can calm him when he has one of his panic attacks. Leroy enjoys making people uncomfortable and does whatever he can to prevent any sort of relationship from developing between Will and Alex.
And Leroy’s fears are not entirely unjustified. Will’s secret that he’s been hiding is that he was involved in a doomsday church (referred to by more than one other character as a cult) that believed fervently in the coming Rapture. These beliefs are what started Will writing, but they also lead to scandal and outrage when the pastor’s attempt to “purify” a young man who’s faith was crumbling ended with deadly results. Will is doing his best to distance himself from that church, that event, and that scandal, but he clearly cannot let go of those beliefs.
And here is where the play forces the audience to examine the nature (and consequences) of such fervent, blind faith: Will is the only character who believes in something. Anna says that she attends a Lutheran church and says that she believes in Jesus, but for her it seems to just be something that people do. They go to church, they believe in Jesus. It’s not something that defines her, or even that she thinks about much. It’s comforting without having any real meaning behind it. Pauline believes in money, in the corporate mission. She took a store that was 6 months away from closing its doors and made it profitable. She doesn’t care what people believe or do, so long as it doesn’t affect her bottom line and she doesn’t have to report on it to corporate. Leroy has his art, but wearing shirts with sayings like “Cunt” and “You Are Meat” seems more a celebration of confrontation with people who don’t share his point of view than any sort of meaningful belief system.
Will on the other hand is the picture of faith and obedience, and it’s destroying his life. Although he wasn’t charged in the young man’s death, he was forced to leave his home and his church. He’s homeless and working thankless minimum wage retail. Although we don’t get a lot of information about Will’s relationship with Alex’s mother, there is at least some suggestion that his fanaticism may have impacted the events leading to him being adopted by another family. Will also reveals that he was very close to the young man who died and that he was the one who informed the pastor of the young man’s crisis of faith. When Will reveals this to Alex, his son accuses him, “You told on him.” Will has stayed strong in his faith, and everything in his life has fallen apart around him.
And there is no improvement. His inability to, as Anna suggests to him, “just believe something else” ruins his budding friendship with her; instead of forming a lasting bond with his son, Alex attempts suicide because he sees Will’s fanaticism and Leroy’s lack of purpose or belief as the only two options available to him. His faith gives him meaning, where none can be found in his life. When Alex asks him why he still believes in God, Will replies, “Because without God, then I’m just a terrible father who works at Hobby Lobby and lives in his car.” The painful irony in this moment is that Will can’t see that without the unyielding nature of his beliefs, he might not have been a terrible father, or working at Hobby Lobby, or living in his car. If his faith allowed him to give some attention to this world, instead of just the next, he might have been able to repair some of those relationships and make a different life for himself. We might judge the other characters for not having any strong beliefs, but we must also judge Will for what damage his ironclad beliefs have wrought.
A Bright New Boise is a an acidic little show with lots of dark comedy and some big questions. The cast all give dynamic performances, and the show really makes the best of the small performance space. I highly recommend this piece for anyone who wants to be challenged by their theatrical experience. This is not a fluffy piece of entertainment and requires some serious thinking, both during and after.
The show runs tonight and next Thursday – Saturday, April 9-11. Tickets are $15 in advance ($17 at the door) with a 7:30 pm showtime. Limited seating is available, so get those tickets early! If you miss this show, it might be the end of the world…if you believe in that sort of thing.
Tags: Anna Pieri, apocalypse, Belief, Bright New Boise, Chris Berg, Christopher Olsen, Darin Kerr, Doomsday Cult, Heaven, hell, Hobby Lobby, Jackson Holm, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Miss Jaye, Religious Fanaticism, Samuel D. Hunter, Separated At Birth, The Rapture, World of Champagne