Darkly funny and profound
|Griffin Theatre Company presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Many a popular song has been written on the inability to leave one’s town of origin. (Counting Crows’ “Hangingaround” and “Round Here” and Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” immediately come to mind.) Sometimes, departing a place for good isn’t as easy as throwing a suitcase into a car and hitting the road. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s work is not only location specific, but also looks at locations that may be impossible to escape. The protagonist of A Bright New Boise stays in his dead-end job at Hobby Lobby for a chance to reconnect with his teenage son, while The Whale’s main character is morbidly obese and literally cannot leave his house. Hunter’s signature brilliance is on full, delicious display in Pocatello. Set entirely in a doomed chain restaurant in the outskirts of Idaho, Griffin Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere is brilliant from beginning to end, an ode to broken dreams and a personification of the word “stuck.”
Eddie (Michael McKeogh) has come to a very reluctant crossroads. Despite his efforts to save the Italian restaurant he manages, it’s closing at the end of next week – and he hasn’t gotten around to telling his employees. Meanwhile, recovering addict waiter Max (Morgan Maher) might be falling off the wagon, waitress Isabelle’s (Allie Long) moods swing from sunny to nasty at the drop of a hat, and former mill worker turned server Troy’s (Bob Kruse) family situation is on the rocks – again. Eddie wants nothing more than to help his scrappy crew, reconnect with his visiting brother Nick (Sam Guinan-Nyhart) and just sit and talk with his mother (Lynda Shadrake). Oh, and to stay in Pocatello forever, even though the family homestead has long been sold, no one will acknowledge he’s gay and he’ll soon be out of a job. After all, Pocatello is home. Right?
Hunter’s gift lies in his unparalleled understanding of human nature. Small town folks are not dumb rednecks (mostly). By and large, they’re just as complex as their big city counterparts, only with many less options and many more ties to the place they’ve always called home. As Pocatello progresses, secrets are revealed and Eddie’s situation grows increasingly dire, yet it’s hard not to empathize with him. Sure, the town’s getting taken over by Wal-Marts and Applebees, but it’s the place where Eddie’s father once ran a diner and served broccoli and Cheez Whiz casserole, where his great-grandfather came from Utah to start a new life. If he had to sacrifice his one romantic relationship to stay here, so be it.
Some characters in Pocatello only appear in one or two scenes, but every presence leaves an impact. The most minor role is multilayered, the most throwaway of dialogue fraught with meaning without being heavy-handed. Hunter knows just when to throw in a bit of comedy, or to insert a moment just relatable enough to make the audience chuckle and nod in recognition. Director Jonathan Berry and his terrific ensemble display a reverence for the text, playing both broad and subtle moments for all they are worth, and keeping the pacing tight without sacrificing any action or emotion.
Set designer Joe Schermoly’s work is nothing short of art. The audience walks into the intimate Signal Ensemble Theatre space to find a fully-realized Italian restaurant. Every detail, from the speaker that later blares “Italian” Muzak to the leatherette booths to the bland and inoffensive yellow-beige painted walls, is utterly uncanny and guaranteed to bring up flashbacks of road trip stops along the highway or uncomfortable family dinners from childhood. Kudos to Schermoly for getting it completely, utterly right in a way I’ve never before seen a set designer accomplish.
As someone who hails from a small town, I found myself connecting with Pocatello in an almost painful way. I did end up leaving to attend college, but many I know did not. Pocatello’s characters and dialogue are achingly authentic, and Hunter masterfully illustrates their humanness with both honesty and respect. In this season of giving thanks, Pocatello left me grateful that I had the support and resources to depart my small town for good, and a greater empathy for those who could not. This production is worth every dollar, every minute and every thought.
Pocatello continues through December 13th at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1812 W. Berenice (map), with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $36 (student/seniors: $31), and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or at OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at GriffinTheatre.com. (Running time: 90 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Sandy Elias (Cole), Sam Guinan-Nyhart (Nick), Bob Kruse (Troy), Allie Long (Isabelle), Nina O’Keefe (Kelly), Morgan Maher (Max), Michael McKeogh (Eddie), Mechelle Moe (Tammy), Becca Savoy (Becky), Lynda Shadrake (Doris)
behind the scenes
Jonathan Berry (director), Joe Schermoly (scenic design, tech director), Carolyn Sullivan (costume design), Sarah Hughey (lighting design), Bradford Chapin (sound design), Catherine Allen (production manager), Ryan McCain (props design), Jon Ravenscroft (stage manager), Kevin McCloskey (asst. stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)