S amuel D. Hunter’s big little stage drama Lewiston, now getting its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, plumbs tiny human recesses against the grand, open scale of Idaho.
Of course you mostly have to imagine the Idaho part, but somehow Lewiston, under the direction of Long Wharf’s former associate artistic director Eric Ting, makes it easy. A companion piece to Hunter’s Clarkston—together they ping the famed 19th-century American explorers Lewis and Clark—Lewiston, though it draws some decent laughs, is a drama through and through, with patient, pooling threads leading the play’s sometimes impatient characters into challenging, uncharted territory, sort of like the American West’s rivers and creeks once did for Lewis and Clark.
Lewis’s legacy, whether real or imagined, looms large over the characters here. The town where it takes place is named after him, after all, and the aging, emotionally complicated matriarch Alice, played with remarkable subtlety by Randy Danson, is a proud member of the Lewis family tree, identifying the explorer as her “great-great-great-grandpa’s cousin.” Similarly related, then, are any of Alice’s extant blood relations who might show up—including one who is only heard, not seen, yet plays a central thematic and structural role in the story.
Indeed, that character gets the play’s first lines, her dislocated voice floating across a dark stage. Breathing a little heavily, with birds singing in the far background and maybe a river gurgling, too, the voice carries the excitement of someone in a curious place, at the start of something new. But before we can really tell what’s going on, there’s a bang! and a sizzle, and the lights come up.
What they reveal is Connor (played by Martin Moran, who also does his nuanced role justice), Alice’s housemate and closest ally, testing a piece of inventory while Alice takes a load off nearby. The pair run a roadside fireworks stand, and Connor figures the best way to come up with new sales language is to let the products themselves inspire him. His first test—with the bang and sizzle—yields a thoroughly uninspiring result, though, causing laughter among the audience and a mild argument between the characters. Through it we learn that the fireworks people might actually want to buy—you know, the ones that fly and/or explode—have been outlawed in Idaho, but that the nearby Native American reservation can still sell the good stuff, a disadvantage anyone can see would make it impossible for Alice’s dusty wayward business venture to succeed.
The bleakness of the situation does an excellent job giving the audience the feeling that there’s no plausible future here—that living on this 20-acre plot, the final piece of what several generations of her family had once been able to make a living from, would be an exercise in frustration and futility. It’s a smart move on the playwright Hunter’s part, because it immunizes Alice’s plan to sell the final patch of her ancestral lands to a condo developer—something we soon learn about—from the immediate critical impulse many of us might otherwise have in reaction to such an act. That in turn renders the central conflict to come, catalyzed by an unexpected arrival pitching unwelcome notions, murkier and more complicated.
Despite the occasional bang, literal or otherwise, this play is more of a long sizzle, rewarding patience, curiosity and sensitivity. Perhaps improbably, it leaves you craving more of its quiet, sustained sort of entertainment, even against a broader cultural horizon filled with quick, flashy explosions of sound and light.
Written by Dan Mims. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson.