THE ABSOLUTE WORST feeling to walk out of a theater with is "So what?" So what, you actors sure do like the sound of your own voice. So what, I did this instead of watching Arrested Development?
But it's rare to feel that way after a Third Rail show—their existence is a sustained argument for the ongoing relevance of theater as an art form, an argument I wish more companies were making.
Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise is a relatively new script (it premiered in New York in 2010), and a strong, interesting one. It's set in a big-box store in Boise, Idaho, but it doesn't condescend to the people who work or shop there; it balances mundane, workaday concerns and existential ones, asking questions about life's meaning in a world that never seems to provide any answers. Oh, and it's very, very funny.
Actor Tim True is a fucking local treasure, and he proves it here once again as Will, a quiet man with evangelical tendencies who takes a job at a Boise Hobby Lobby—in order, it turns out, to get closer to the son he gave up for adoption years earlier: angsty, misunderstood Alex, who also works at the store.
As Alex, Andy Lee-Hillstrom has two of the show's strongest moments: a long, captivating scene where the panic attack-prone kid tries to get his breathing under control, and a bit where he demonstrates his "performance art" to his dad that's quite possibly the funniest thing I've ever seen on a Portland stage. So funny I dropped my pen. Chris Murray brings satisfying depth to his combative character, the store's resident angry punk-rock art dude; Kerry Ryan's appealingly goofy as an oddball employee; and Jacklyn Maddux is grounded and great as the foul-mouthed store manager. There's not a wrong note in the cast, as Will tries to figure out what he wants more: for the world to end in cleansing, apocalyptic flames, or to get to know his son.
A Bright New Boise's stakes are cranked a bit high in its final scenes; whenever an otherwise realistic and well-observed play is interrupted by a dramatic plot twist, I feel as though the playwright is underestimating the audience's attention span, as though I couldn't be expected to sit through a simple drama about people struggling with faith in a hopeless world. But that's a quibble with the script, not the production; this is a best-case version of a play that intelligently situates age-old questions of meaning and faith within a modern context.