by Loren Noveck · December 17, 2014
Danny Wolohan, Jessica Dickey, Leah Karpel | Jeremy Daniel
The people of Samuel D. Hunter’s Pocatello--the staff of a chain Italian restaurant in Pocatello, Idaho, teetering through its last weeks before its corporate parent shuts it down, and their families--are just trying to get by, under circumstances that seem to keep throwing more and more difficulties at them. To a certain extent, all of them have dead-ended here at the restaurant for a variety of reasons both personal and institutional: an ill-advised choice of Pacific Northwest history as a college major; the closing of the local paper mill; a drug arrest that turns off most potential employers; getting fired from KMart for cursing; the inexorable takeover of chain stores from local businesses owned by the characters’ parents (a diner and a hardware store, both gone now). Eddie, the restaurant’s manager, is trying to push past the coming catastrophe by sheer force of will, hoping (through gimmicks like “Famiglia Week”) to mislead corporate into thinking the branch might still be profitable. In fact, he hasn't even told his staff they're almost certain to be out of work. Emotionally as well as financially, this job is all Eddie has: he’s single and gay in a town that can barely acknowledge the word “gay”; his brother, Nick, and sister-in-law, Kelly, are making their first visit back to Idaho in years; and his mother, Doris, is pushing Eddie away so transparently and aggressively that you almost have to admire his stubborn refusal to take the hint.
And his staff all has their own problems: Troy, a high school classmate of Eddie’s, has a wife (Tammy) with a drinking problem, a marriage that keeps circling back to the same tired fights, a troubled teenaged daughter railing against the world, and a father sinking into dementia. Max is on probation after a drug arrest and Eddie is the only one who would hire him. Even the chirpy, easy-going Isabelle feels like she has nowhere else to go.
These are people with troubles, but not generally people who want to talk about their troubles, and the shifts between emotional repression and emotional revelation in Hunter's script can be counterintuitive; it's a curious play in that it's often quite affecting while rarely being surprising or profound. Its characters' discoveries and epiphanies are mostly obvious to us before they can be articulated by the people having them; these characters have spent so long stuffing down their emotions that even the act of conversation beyond the banal is something only to be considered when all other possibilities have failed (except for Becky, Troy’s teenage daughter, who wants to shock or appall every time she opens her mouth; her stridency is a sometimes welcome contrast, but the character doesn’t entirely convince). But when they finally break down or break through, they don’t stumble and stutter; it may be a hard fight to dig down to the confessional impulse, but once they come, they seem to come glibly.
In fact the character beats of epiphany or confession seem far too neatly parceled out, divvied up character by character, scene by scene. Each actor in the strong cast makes the most of his or her moment at the center--from Eddie’s (T.R. Knight) frustratedly vulnerability to Tammy’s (Jessica Dickey) brittle resignation to Max’s (Cameron Scoggins) stubborn self-delusions and Cole’s (Jonathan Hogan’s) painful struggle for composure while coming back to himself after a frightening episode of memory lapse--but the overall evenhandedness, and the ready accessibility of positive outcomes for many of the characters once they simply acknowledge their problems, feels forced. Director Davis McCallum ably uses the depth of field provided by Lauren Helpern’s hyper-realistic set to vary the visual texture of the redemptive moments, but there’s still too much underlying sameness to the rhythms.
Still, there’s something underneath that makes the piece speak to a larger picture--one could even say, that speaks to the future prospects of America--more successfully than it does on the small scale. Its characters fail and fail again--out of fear, cowardice, lack of will, sure, but even more, perhaps, out of a tenacious, idealistic grip on a vision of an America that no longer exists: they want to reside in a place and have their lives rooted there, but the individual center of their community has been eroded: all that remains is the strip malls out by the highway: Applebee’s and Home Depot and Best Buy and the never-named Olive Garden equivalent that forms the play’s setting. The closest thing to a place of significance that can join any of them is the ruin of Eddie’s great-grandfather’s homestead on the outskirts of town--and even that has become so rundown that it’s the party spot for bored teenagers.
But on the flip side, this Pocatello to which Eddie and Troy so desperately cling--rejecting even the possibility of leaving when it might bring each of them greater rewards professionally and personally--feels increasingly out of step with America, too. It’s entirely white; everyone knows each other; it’s a place where the word “gay” can barely be spoken. It’s a place people plan to flee from--as Nick did--and yet it won’t give up its hold on those who remain. The real sadness of the play may be how scared its characters are of what comes next, and yet how hollow their nostalgia feels.