There’s been buzz about the Dallas Opera’s three world premieres in 2015, which is a remarkable achievement in the realm of major opera companies. But don’t forget that another big-budget Dallas arts institution, the Dallas Theater Center, will end the year with four new fully staged works.
Has that ever happened for a local theater company that has an annual budget of more than, let’s say, a quarter-of-a-million dollars?
Samuel D. Hunter’s Clarkston, the fourth premiere at DTC this year — following Stagger Lee, Colossal (which was a rolling premiere with other theaters around the country) and Moonshine: That Hee-Haw Musical — is definitely the quietest work of the bunch, but has plenty to say about self-discovery, the struggle for personal connections and “comparative happiness.”
In this decade, Hunter, a 2014 MacArthur Genius Grant designee, has become one of the names to watch in American drama, especially after his masterful The Whale.
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Clarkston is a companion piece to another new play, Lewiston, which premieres in April at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut. Each is set in the real towns in the part of the country where Hunter grew up: the Idaho panhandle, with Washington/Oregon on one side and Montana on the other.
The names come from explorers Lewis and Clark, who, as this play reminds us, are well-known American figures whose important mission didn’t come without regrets that hindsight would reveal.
This play, directed by Davis McCallum, uses that as one metaphor for a contemporary, intimate story of two men: Chris (Sam Lilja) and Jake (Taylor Trensch), 20-somethings from different backgrounds who work the night shift stocking shelves at Costco. Both have personal demons, and after the exposition, their relationship sets out on a surprisingly predictable pathway. The other character is Trisha (Heidi Armbruster), Chris’ drug-addicted mother who represents a major part of Chris’ life that he wants to escape.
It some ways it’s reminiscent of Hunter’s early play A Bright New Boise, which is set in the break room of a Hobby Lobby, and also The Whale, in which literature plays an important role. There are recurring themes that thread through all of Hunter’s plays, which says that he’s a playwright who is carving out a recognizable style, as the playwrights we remember most do.
His big strength is his natural, conversational dialogue with an occasional poetic flourish, fully evident here. “My body’s going to forget how to be alive,” says one character.
Clarkston is not nearly as emotionally weighty as The Whale, but each of its characters is knotty with complications that stir conflicting reactions of love and hate, which is also a testament of the delicate performances by all three actors.
In the Studio Theatre at the Wyly Theatre, McCallum maintains the intimacy of the interpersonal connections, an interesting juxtaposition against the cavernous space of a Costco, effectively rendered by scenic designer Andrew Boyce.
The ending, while visually beautiful, is surprisingly maudlin for Hunter, lacking the visceral punch of some of his other works.
But on the “comparative happiness” scale, it’s pretty high up there.