When I first sent the press invite to a few of my fellow theater junkies wondering who was interested in coming with, one wrote back, “Yikes! 3.5 hours and a forced dinner break is too much for me“, but thankfully the other wrote. “Sounds incredible“. Without that enthusiastic response, I might not have gone, and then much to my horror, I would have missed out on something pretty damn special and astonishing. Because what playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s (The Whale) has done with his new two play evening, Lewiston/Clarkston is dynamically astounding. It is one of those rare theatrical moments that simply can not be missed. And I use the word ‘simply’ with exacting purpose and detail, much like Davis McCallum’s (PH’s Pocatello) emotionally precise and expansive direction which takes two similarly structured plays, both approximately 90 minutes each, and layers them with differing vistas, but equally constructed with such symmetry that one needs only to sit back and be amazed at the pure brilliance and the elegance of the layering. Not to mention six of the most spell binding performances I’ve seen this fall season. Standing so close to us, I had to control the overwhelming impulse to reach out with love and care to these struggling souls; characters that are ripping themselves open for our extreme theatrical pleasure.
Starting out with the touching and very engaging Lewiston, an older woman, Alice, magnificently inhabited by the powerful and subtle Kristin Griffith (ATC’s Animal) giving a performance that will send fireworks off internally. She explodes quietly when surprised by a visit from her young granddaughter, Marnie, played with twitching intensity by Leah Karpel (LCT3’s The Harvest). They haven’t seen each other since sometime around the suicidal death of Alice’s daughter and Marnie’s mom, and the scared tight look on Griffith’s face will fracture your heart and soul. She has the gaze of a wounded warrior who has no defense and nothing to say. The chasm between the two is deep and dark filled with rushing troubling currents of pain and anger. Neither seem all that keen to try to navigate the tense rapids like their long gone but not forgotten ancestor, the Corps of Discovery explorer, Captain Meriwether Lewis. Lewis, it seems, was not as good of a guy as the high school history books lets on, but the land that he explored still pulls on these two, for different and opposing reasons. But the blood of family is soaked into that dirt, whether they like it or not
Living in the old familial home with the grandmother is Connor, played delicately and humorously by the wonderful subtle Arnie Burton (PR’s The Government Inspector). His discomfort and pain is as clear as can be to the newly arrived Marnie, but with Connor, things seem to be stuck, like a canoe in those very rapids locked between a rock and a hard place. The play dives in, forcing each one of these three to wade into the historical rapids, and risk their emotional lives with every dangerous step forward. The journey, like the one Marnie is listening to on tapes made by her very disturbed mother, Catherine, that mimic Lewis’ journey to the ocean, tests all three of their resolve and desire to reach the other side alive and well. Griffith and Burton, sitting and standing so close in that simply lit carpeted space connect with one another so honestly and authentically that tears formed in my eyes, breaking my heart with their compassion and pain. Their one last scene together is something that I will remember for some time, and their journey is as intimate and touching as any theatrical moment you can imagine.
The fireworks of July 4th explode, breathtakingly orchestrated by the superb lighting design of Stacey Derosier (PR’s The Revolving Cycles…) with a simplicity and strong use of minimalism and the original and reconfigured Rattlestick space. The look and feel of that carpeted uncluttered space capitalizing on the large beautiful windows is enhanced by the spacial integrity of Dane Laffrey (Broadway’s Fool for Love, Transport Group’s Summer and Smoke) set design, with a strong support of technical director Aaron Gonzalez (Lyceum’s Ghetto Klown) and the impeccable sound design of Fitz Patton (Broadway’s Three Tall Women). Their work is everything that theater needs to be, including the authentic costumes by Jessica Wegener Shay (Broadway’s The Performers), direct and unfussy, while creating a formula for truth and intimacy that can’t be denied.
After a break for a (forced) community dinner (one that I didn’t really partake in, as I brought my own snack, although everyone’s meal looked delicious), the scene was reset for the second one-act play, Clarkston. Shining with an almost brighter light on the pain embedded in the journey of life, this dynamic and moving piece of theatre creeps inside with each cardboard box that is moved from loading dock to shelf in a Clarkston Costco store during the night shift. Kind, homegrown, and handsome Chris, beautifully played by the utterly engaging Edmund Donovan (Broadway’s The Snow Geese), is patiently trying to train a young delicate looking man, Jake, played emotionally crushing by Noah Robbins (Broadway’s Arcadia), how the job goes. Pulling us in with each new discover and engagement, the two come together and share their conflicts with such purity and compassion that it’s hard not to be hooked in. And that happens even before Trisha, the complicated mother of Chris, played with knockdown brilliance by Heidi Armbruster (Broadway’s Time Stands Still) shows her credibly conflicted face, showering her son with manipulated promises and pleas. When discovery comes head to head between this mother and son, we join with the slack-jawed Jake as we watch with pained horror at the collapsed entanglement that borders somewhere on complicity and codependency.
Like the tense and searching Marnie who arrives unannounced into the town named after her ancestor, Jake is on a similar pilgrimage of some sort formulated by a similar affiliation, that he is a distant descendant of Lewis’s close friend and fellow explorer, Second Lieutenant William Clark. Jake compulsively reads the book, The Journal of Lewis and Clark, that seems to suggest he is stuck in about the same valley that the Corps of Discovery expedition took respite in at some point between May 1804 to September 1806. Jake finds himself in the middle of an idea, that he should forge his own parallel path into a new world before it’s too late. The Lewis and Clark expedition was the first to cross the western portion of the United States, beginning near St. Louis, making its way westward, passing through the Continental Divide of the Americas to reach the Pacific coast. Their search for the ocean was just as profound and sincere as Jake’s, spiraling up aggressively from fate and position. Driving from Connecticut along a similar route as Lewis and Clark, Jake gets stuck, literally, physically and emotionally just like all the others in this two part expedition at the confluence of the Snake River and Clearwater River, across the street from a warehouse store, leaving Jake desperate to find his way forward but somehow he can’t move with determination.
The writing by Hunter is profound and exceedingly real, showcasing an interpersonal desire for connection and understanding. Each one navigating through a compulsively driven and personal excursion over the treacherous rocks and difficult conditions. The acting is across the board magnificently moving and heart-breaking, redefining the three character play dynamics with the intense intimacy of pairs, like sides of a triangle doing battle for the ultimate claim of being the side/pair that is the supportive base. The two plays, both with three superlative actors, three conflicting relationships, a stalled journey, and an ugly ass tent, look towards an unknown future and back into a complicated past filled with inaccuracies and indigestion. Their trail to the ocean, just like Catherine’s taped search for meaning, is as difficult to navigate as hers, but hopefully more successfully profound. Overflowing with intuitive clarity and clashing compassion, each of these young explorers must find the way to their destination. Lewis and Clark were said to be the first people of European ancestry to visit the area where these two towns eventually were settled and where both plays find their temporary resting place. Somehow and somewhere in their ancestry, Marnie and Jake, and their cohorts, hope to find their way, forging down a river into the oceanic discover of self. Just don’t try eating the roots. And stop buying them…really guys. Make some better choices, and learn from the past, like these characters are trying with all their gloriously talented hearts.