LANE WILLIAMSON: We recently saw Lewiston/Clarkston, the double bill of new Samuel D. Hunter plays at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. The evening is structured as two 90 minute plays with a dinner break where the audience shares a catered meal in between. In keeping with this communal experience, let’s have a dialogue about the plays instead of a more traditional single-perspective review format.
JOEY SIMS: My usual response to seeing even one Hunter play, let alone two, is to just sit silently with my sadness for a year or so. But in keeping with that spirit of communion, as you say – I’ll try to pull together some thoughts.
LANE: Let’s start with the plays themselves. Both Lewiston and Clarkston concern descendants of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (easy to guess which play is connected to which explorer). While the plays don’t rely on the specifics of that expedition, their ancestral history underscores the journeys these contemporary characters are taking now. In Lewiston, a young woman arrives in the titular Idaho town to buy the last remaining patch of land from her grandmother before it leaves the Lewis bloodline. In Clarkston, a young man discovers he has Huntington’s disease and takes off on a cross-country road trip to follow the trail of his distant cousin, William Clark.
JOEY: Unsurprisingly given Hunter’s often harsh worldview, he is constantly undercutting that idea of ancestral history even as it runs through both plays. Both young descendants of Lewis/Clark are, to begin with, mocked for how distant that relation is, and beyond that, they’re forced to question whether there’s any pride to be had in the lineage. Hunter covers some of Lewis/Clark’s barbaric acts, and that’s an interesting topic in itself.
I’m more intrigued by what that obsession with heritage says about Hunter’s characters. Both of his young protagonists – Marnie in Lewiston and Jake in Clarkston – are adrift and alone. Their families are splintered. They are moving through America without any sense of community, or perhaps even of purpose. Neither of them exactly romanticize Lewis or Clark – they are too smart for that. But they envy this expedition for the community and purpose it lended Lewis/Clark, as they try to figure out what use, if any, their own lives can serve.
LANE: Both characters reach for this connection to their ancestors as a last-ditch effort to give their lives some direction, as disconnected as they may have been to that history before their worlds collapsed. The Lewis & Clark Expedition, or at least the way we talk about it, was a very exterior exploration, while Marnie and Jake use the excuse of their ancestors to examine their interior terrain. Hunter is so skilled at drawing the outside and the inside together and at letting external circumstances inform internal life.
I recently read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, so isolation and loneliness were prominent in my mind as I watched these plays. Every single character is experiencing extreme loneliness: Marnie and Jake, definitely, but also Connor and Alice in Lewiston and Chris and Trisha in Clarkston. Connor is a closeted, maybe even unacknowledged, gay man living in rural Idaho. The scene where Liberal Marnie from Seattle essentially outs him was played with such a sense of pain by Arnie Burton; this otherwise affable man responds from a deeply ashamed, frightened place inside himself.
JOEY: You and I happened to have a perfect vantage point for that moment when Marnie casually outs Connor. I watched Arnie Burton’s face just freeze over in horror, and felt so deeply Connor’s pain at something so carefully guarded being spoken out loud so carelessly. I’ve known that pain, but even if you haven’t, it’s all there in Burton’s reaction. Then he goes on the attack, but it was that momentary freeze of panic which I found most chilling.
LANE: Alice, Marnie’s grandmother, sells fireworks on a sad little table and only has Connor for company. Her granddaughter’s arrival is more a rejection than a homecoming and her physical presence only isolates Alice further. Kristin Griffith is so believable in this role – she disappears into it – and her aching is palpable.
JOEY: Kristin Griffith is superb, as you say, but I found her relationship with Marnie more predictable. We know where their initial hostility is going to lead, given how lonely they both are. It’s not that I needed a twist exactly – Sam Hunter plays aren’t about the plot. But given how clearly they ached for each other, the obstacles along the way felt more contrived than I usually expect from Hunter.
Clarkston doesn’t have that problem. Again, the aching loneliness of the characters is clear, but we also understand what’s holding them back from each other. I felt particular empathy with Chris, who is brought to such rich life by Edmund Donovan. He is clearly so excited to meet Jake (an equally great Noah Robbins), but he has a job, and a barely-clean mother, and a legitimate nervousness about being “too out” in this small town. Did you also favor Clarkston, or am I giving Lewiston short shrift?
LANE: I also think Clarkston is a better play, but Lewiston lays some important groundwork in terms of tone and mood for the latter play to really soar.
Both plays are staged in what Rattlestick artistic director Daniella Topol described as “radical intimacy.” Lewiston, in particular, is a thrust staging where the playing space is no larger than a New York living room. You got up close and personal with a tent. The audience is pressed so closely against the actors that it felt almost intrusive to me. While I normally live for that kind of immediacy, I don’t think the close quarters did Lewiston any favors. When the tension lags in the narrative, the play loses the audience and with all of us on top of each other, it’s hard to get the group realigned. I think Director Davis McCallum and lighting designer Stacey DeRosier make up some of that lost space with the first play’s captivating final image, though.
JOEY: I sure did get very friendly with that tent, which Leah Karpel as Marnie sets up in a small space between audience members. I tend to look for the easiest path of exit when sitting down at any show – not out of a desire to leave, it’s more of an anxiety thing. In this case my only route involved trampling the tent and walking directly through the play. There’s maybe a fine line between immersive and just penning us in.
LANE: When the space opens up into a traverse staging for Clarkston, it allows the play to breathe and gives the audience more perspective. The performances have more room to explore the complicated emotional range of Hunter’s text and the characters’ physicality becomes central to the storytelling now that we can see their bodies with a little distance. McCallum’s staging in the second play makes great use of Dane Laffrey’s long, narrow Costco aisle set and DeRosier’s lighting captures that crepuscular night shift feel with continually surprising detail.
JOEY: My own neuroses aside – the staging of Lewiston also makes the setting initially unclear, as it does not at all feel like a roadside. That’s why the traverse staging of Clarkston is so great, like you say – it really puts us in that space. We feel how huge the expanse is around them – but also how stifling that expanse can be.
Clarkston is also just a brilliant, brilliant piece of writing. I want to talk about Heidi Armbruster. She plays Chris’ barely-holding-on mother, who is trying to get back into his life. Armbruster has been a mainstay on and off Broadway for years, but rarely gets roles equal to her considerable talents. Here she is equal parts tragic and scary. Obviously the larger social significance of the character – reflecting a broader epidemic across this country – is not lost on us. But in Armbruster’s hands, she is one, not one of many.
LANE: Armbruster’s final scene is throat-clutchingly excruciating. Aside from the things we’ve mentioned already, the quality of the acting in Clarkston – from all three actors – is truly extraordinary. They are so tuned into each other and that makes their eventual heartbreaks and reconciliations (where those occur) all the more impactful. Where the stakes in Lewiston feel middle-of-the-road, everything is so important in Clarkston. When Trisha arrives in the fourth scene of the play, we’ve already gotten to know the boys and we’re already invested in them. She throws a wrench in that and Armbruster is able to negotiate that kind of toxic energy with the need Chris feels to care about her well-being. Both Hunter and Armbruster imbue Trisha with an overwhelming love for her son – even when she is betraying his trust, she tries to make up for that or promise it’s not going to happen again. It’s a deeply human performance, flaws up front, undisguised.
We could talk about these plays for a long time. Any final, undiscussed thoughts before we say goodbye? Lewiston and Clarkston may have nothing to do with each other in terms of plot or character, but they speak to each other through the audience, which is something I’ve never experienced before. We carry the people we met in Lewiston into Clarkston and we carry them all outside with us when the evening concludes. They’re strangers to each other, and to us, in the most literal definition of the word, but their battles have common ground. And they have a geographic commonality as well. We joked about the Sam Hunter Universe as we walked to the train, but are we not to believe that characters from The Whale and The Harvest and Pocatello are existing simultaneously as Marnie visits her grandmother and Jake carries boxes at Costco? Hunter is peopling this theatrical world with each new play.
JOEY: I can’t think of a better note to end on than that. May the Sam Hunter Universe continue to grow and grow.