Elements Theatre Collective consistently produces some of the most sophisticated and ambitious work in Santa Barbara, and its upcoming production of Samuel D. Hunter’s Obie-winning play A Bright New Boise is sure to continue in this tradition. The play, which runs July 10-26, examines the American working-class experience from the break room of an Idaho Hobby Lobby, where employees forge connections despite having little in common beyond their jobs as craft-supply peddlers.
While this concept has the potential to be dreary, A Bright New Boise offsets the bleak impression of life’s seeming dead ends with entertaining characters who hunt for greater significance in ordinary moments. Director Stephanie Farnum describes this search for more substantial meaning as a response to the banality of life. “The divine must be out there,” she explained. “But once we’ve gone to that end of the spectrum, we realize we’ve lost touch: Everything is too monumental, and we crave the banal again.”
The story concentrates on Will, an Evangelical Christian who decides to reunite with the son he gave up for adoption years ago. With the threat of the imminent rapture in mind, Will gets a job at the Boise Hobby Lobby where his son works, determined to make a personal connection. Like any representation of a population subculture, the Hobby Lobby employees demonstrate a variety of personality quirks. Farnum refers to the examination of these characters’ eccentricities as a look at “the everyman nature of crazy.” Will may be strange, but the moments in which he interacts with characters stranger than he is allow the audience a new perspective on his situation.
A Bright New Boise offers a distinctive but accessible take on the peculiarities of being part of a community — especially one that is recognized as being mainstream resistant. Farnum pointed out, for example, that our general understanding of cults or fringe religious groups is of “those insane people over there, people who are nothing like us, people who we could never end up like. And that’s not reality. This play explores those topics over there by bringing them over here.” Farnum seeks to show that the existence of these subgroups isn’t an anomaly but rather an understandable reaction to the human need for social connection.
Elements has been producing plays this season that highlight the theme of power and influence. This was seen clearly in February’s Nixon’s Nixon, and these ideas are prevalent, albeit comparatively subtle, in A Bright New Boise. Hunter’s play focuses on how charismatic characters gain power and wield influence; more importantly, it examines the idea that such power isn’t always wanted and such influence isn’t always intentional. “Power is pervasive,” Farnum said, “and influence is fluid.” For example, the bearing of Will’s religious beliefs (and his captivating nature) certainly coax the direction of the other characters’ experiences; and the power of human connection, limited as it is in the brief interludes between selling craft supplies, is potent.
The production features Rob Grayson, Jenna Scanlon, Blake Benlan, Aaron Linker, and the very funny Katelyn Tustin. Performances will be held in a variety of alternative theater spaces, which will make each show unique. Elements Theatre Collective is an advocate for accessible theater, and all its shows are free to the public.
A Bright New Boise plays Friday, July 10-Sunday, July 26, at various locations. For more information, call (805) 232-4382 or see elementstc.org.