SALT LAKE CITY — Every job involves some navigation of workplace culture and politics. When Will starts work at the Boise, Idaho, Hobby Lobby, he upsets the store’s daily grind in a way none of his coworkers anticipated. At face value, Will (played by Brian Pilling) is a straight-laced man who left his job at the Coeur d’Alene Albertson’s to move to the big city. Some slight social awkwardness seems like the appropriate response to his eccentric co-workers. We soon learn, though, that Will’s stiffness is more than just first-day jitters. The move to Boise wasn’t inspired simply by a desire for a change of scenery: Will is looking for a fresh start after a life-changing tragedy. And he hasn’t chosen Boise, or this specific Hobby Lobby, at random.
Wasatch Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise takes place in the Hobby Lobby break room, with a few late-night forays to the store’s parking lot. The cast of colorful coworkers parades through between shifts. Leroy (Gordon Dunn) is a master of fine art student at Boise State University who wears t-shirts with obscene messages as a form of performance art. His younger brother, Alex (CJ Strong), has all the intense emotions of a 17-year old and none of the social network to vent them with. Pauline (Sallie Cooper) is the foul-mouthed manager of the Hobby Lobby and has given her life to keeping the craft store in business. Anna (Haley McCormick) has the exact opposite attitude toward her retail career and is starting to run low on Boise establishments where she hasn’t already been fired.
In between stocking shelves and ringing up customers, the employees peel away Will’s chipper exterior and find a lot more questions than answers underneath. Through it all, Hobby Lobby’s employees are looking for meaning. Will’s search is the most obvious and urgent, which is probably why his presence brings everyone else’s existential paradigm to the forefront. As the details of Will’s past are gradually revealed, his co-workers are forced to rethink their assumptions and take stock of their world views.
Jim Martin’s direction moved the play forward at a steady momentum. Earnest performances by Pilling, Strong, and Dunn pulled me into the characters’ unfolding drama and kept me engaged to the very end. The plays subject matter and lack of set changes could have bogged things down, but the combination of technical and dramatic elements worked together with a seamless and gripping flow.
I was particularly impressed by the show’s technical elements. The set could have been the break room of any retail establishment complete with a worn out couch and workplace-safety flyers (set design/construction by Kit Anderton). When it wasn’t muted, an out-of-view breakroom TV broadcast a Hobby Lobby-dedicated channel showcasing various pieces of merchandise, and I was impressed by the synchronization and interaction of changes in lighting and sound (lighting design by Danny Dunn, and sound design by Amy Allred). Costume design, by Linda Eyring, was dominated by the store’s uniform of khaki pants and vest with nametags, but the characters’ shoes and shirts gave nuance to each personality.
Because I thought I was going to see a religiously-themed play set in a Hobby Lobby, I had some expectations about what themes might come up. But I afterward learned that the play debuted in 2010, before Hobby Lobby became known for the 2014 federal court case that allowed closely-held companies a religious exemption from the requirement for employers to cover contraceptives for female employees. Hobby Lobby itself was less of a plot point and served simply as a location where a wide range of perspectives might happen to converge.
Ultimately Samuel D. Hunter’s script is about fresh starts. Of course there’s no fresher start than the cleansing of the whole world in the fire of the second coming of Jesus. But if that doesn’t come when it’s expected, we might be forced to face the uncomfortable fact that the one thing none of us can truly leave behind is our own selves.