We know right away that the title of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2011 Obie Award-winning play A Bright New Boise is ironic — the play is set in a bleakly recognizable box-store employee break room, where beleaguered Hobby Lobby manager Pauline (Catherine Palfenier, pictured) interviews shy, older Will (Kevin Bergen, also pictured) for a minimum-wage retail job. It’s 38 hours a week (which is part-time, two hours shy of full-time and benefits). Yes, in director Jill Harrison’s terrific production, we’re in a uniquely American hell.
The audience — sitting on opposite sides of Ian Guzzone’s wonderfully terrible little room, fluorescent-lit by David Todaro — soon sees that Hunter has plans beyond depicting minimum-wage misery. When Will’s small talk with surly teen coworker Alex (Aubie Merrylees) falters, he blurts out that he is Alex’s father. “You’d better not need a kidney,” the kid sneers.
Will arrives penniless, but with baggage: He’s a survivor of the New Life Fellowship, which preached end times until scandal destroyed them. Will still believes, writing Rapture fiction on his blog. Alex’s adoptive brother Leroy (Robert Carlton) tries to drive Will away — “This is me deliberately making you uncomfortable,” he glowers — while shy reader Anna (Jessica DalCanton) finds Will’s hobby alluring. All seek something to believe in: Leroy trusts his feeble art, Anna wants a man, Pauline’s god is a profitable store, Alex needs family.
Father and son make lurching progress as Will, in Bergen’s masterfully understated performance, struggles to maintain his battered religious identity despite his new world’s temptations — particularly the heartbreakingly lonely Anna. “One day, none of this will matter,” Will insists, but he begins to hope for more.
Hunter’s ending surprises with its suddenness — it shocked me, I think, because I was so invested in the characters and not ready to let them go — but an incisive script and the cast’s fine performances help us realize that providing no easy answers is sometimes the right answer. Through Oct. 21, $10-$22, Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., 215-423-0254, simpaticotheatre.org.
Next to Normal
In a moment, I’ll get to the business at hand — the Arden’s fine, visually stunning production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. But first, please allow me to vent.
May we have a universal moratorium on heaping accolades on new musicals for bravely taking on difficult subject matter? It’s 2012, people. Stephen Sondheim has made an almost 60-year career of it, and he and his works are hardly the first. How about Show Boat, which in 1927 took on racism and family upheaval with a richly complex score? Or, closer to Normal’s turf, Oklahoma! (1943), in which Jud Fry’s mental illness is astonishingly captured in the song “Lonely Room,” which for me remains the most brilliantly disquieting two-and-a-half minutes of theater ever. And if we include opera as musical theater, well, mad scenes were regularly employed to showcase a heroine’s mental descent. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (one of many possible examples) fiendishly presses every tool of a soprano’s vocal arsenal into service over 20 electrifying minutes.
So instead of pulling out terms like “groundbreaking innovation” to describe Normal — a 2008 musical that deals forthrightly with bipolar disorder and the dysfunction it causes in the Goodman family (mentally ill wife Diana, husband Dan and their two teenage children, Gabe and Natalie) — let’s ask a better question. Just how good is it?
The answer is mixed. Normal is finely plotted, with some twists and turns along the way that surprise and draw us in both emotionally and intellectually. The writers Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) have an ear for how young people speak and think, so moments like Natalie’s song, “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” feel truly genuine. The score itself is varied, often lovely and sometimes powerful (occasionally both).
But neither script nor score bring us deeply enough into the Goodmans’ world of inner demons. Diana in particular seems far more on-the-edge than anything we hear in her songs. (Dark moods are routinely evoked by electric guitar and drums, which made me smile — I guess rock ’n’ roll is the devil’s music, after all.)
Ultimately, Normal leaves much of the character-defining work to the performers. This is probably a good time to mention Alice Ripley, who created the role of Diana and played it for a celebrated stretch on and off Broadway, and whose iconic performance remains for many inseparable from the show. Ripley is a compelling, highly idiosyncratic actress whose high-wire virtuoso vocalism was thrilling, by all accounts. But her performances became increasingly erratic over her two-year run as Diana — some nights, she seemed several continents away from normal.
That’s certainly not the case with Kristine Fraelich (pictured), whose performance of Diana is a model of vocal control. Each note is placed perfectly, and there’s nothing in the difficult score that seems to tax her. If anything, she sounds fresher at the end than she did at the beginning. But though such blue-chip, effortless-feeling vocals are generally welcome in musicals, here, Fraelich, an appealing but placid actress, doesn’t suggest the scope of Diana’s pain. “I miss the mountains,” she sings plaintively — appropriate, as her performance needs more peaks and valleys. Among the other cast members, Rachel Camp is especially winning as Natalie, but across the board there should be more underlying tension.
On the other hand, the musical values are universally strong, and Terrence J. Nolen’s sleek, minimalist production gets Normal exactly right, with video projections (by Jorge Cousineau) that are astonishingly apt and interesting. (It may seem like a backhanded compliment to praise the visuals in a musical, but there you are.)
There’s much to admire in Normal, which is served honorably at the Arden. But if you really want to see how sparks can fly at the intersection of musical theater and psychodrama, check out Lucia di Lammermoor — now that’s brave.
Through Nov. 4, $36-$48, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.
—David Anthony Fox