Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pocatello: Unlimited Delusions and Breadsticks

"We're not a family that talks."

Samuel D. Hunter has become the poet laureate playwright of the washed-up and emotionally crippled. His past Idaho plays (A Brand New Boise, The Whale, The Few) have all featured people on the lowest rungs of life, barely hanging on, dealing with fractured families and broken hearts. These plays stand on their own, ruminating on similar themes but each with a unique point of view.  His newest play, Pocatello, joins this group as another chapter in the ups and mostly downs of life in Idaho.

Eddie (T.R. Knight) is a quiet, gay man trying to hold together his Olive Garden-style chain restaurant as everything in his small town gets worse and worse. His brother Nick (Brian Hutchison) and sister-in-law Kelly (Crystal Finn) are in town for a visit. A tense dinner with their mother (Brenda Wehle) at the restaurant suggests this family spends very little time together and the more Eddie tries to hold them together the more they seem to push away from him. In parallel his co-worker Troy (Danny Wolohan) is married to Tammy (Jessica Dickey) who is an alcoholic and their teen daughter, Becky (Leah Karpel) is acting out and angry about everything in the world. Becky can only see the "bad." Eddie can only focus on the "good." But neither is truly seeing the world as it is. Becky is constantly demanding a kind of hyper-honesty and Eddie is in a permanent delusion. Eddie hires Becky to work at the restaurant when she's suspended from school. As someone who doesn't really hear what other adults are saying to him he seems to connect to this trouble teen the most.

After discussing the show with some of the Maxamoo folks there was a general complaint that this was a play about whiny losers. None of the characters had one positive thing about them which made it hard to root for anyone. Whether that is or is not true, I didn't find that mattered to me.

Eddie's desperation to stay in Pocatello and stop things from changing comes from a deeply rooted and traumatic place. Having experienced a tragedy earlier in his life Eddie seems trapped in childish thinking. It was as if his emotional development ended at that point and his magical thinking life began. And yet we can see the adult inside knowing he's deluding himself--and T.R. Knight's performance really gets to the heart of this. That's the drama. When will the inner child and exterior adult finally meet and confront each other. Who will survive this interaction?  I think some people were anticipating a larger explosion but I'm not sure what makes a bigger bang than a popped delusion.

Life doesn't always turn out the way you expect. And many among us have held onto a relationship/job/way of life that is long past its expiration date. Watching someone else do so is agonizing. Everyone tries to get Eddie to see what's wrong with his choices and his life. And he does everything he can not to look.  I can see how this might be frustrating to experience as an audience member but I didn't hate Eddie or get frustrated with him myself.  I think that has a lot to do with who I am. I once spent an entire engagement party with my eyes closed because I was mad about having to go. No I was not 35. I was 5. But that kind of fierce single-mindedness in this character to not open his eyes felt familiar to me. It's not pretty, or reasonable, or healthy. But it was all too real.  I felt for this character who was trying so hard to hold onto the lie that was keeping him afloat.  And he was not so different from everyone else around him.  The unhealthy coping mechanisms of most of the restaurant employees and patrons is cause for alarm if you are in charge of mental health issues in Pocatello but for a theater audience there's a lot of pain being avoided and anesthetized in these characters and watching them wrestle with it certainly got to me.

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