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Charles Dickens referenced the best and worst of times. Samuel D. Hunter prefers focusing on the latter — and on the “end times.”
But he’s funnier than Dickens ever was.
More disturbing, too.
“A Bright New Boise,” Hunter’s dark, edgy comedy about faith and forgiveness, made me fidget in my seat at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley — even as I laughed aloud.
Pew Research Center studies apparently have determined that 128 million Americans believe Jesus will return by 2050 and that a small group will go to Heaven while the rest of us are left to face chaos and war.
Will, the play’s quixotic protagonist, is trying — like hell — to be one of the elite who’ll be saved in The Rapture.
But he’s having major trouble, perhaps because he thinks he “may be a bad person” with a shadowy past involving an Evangelical church and a boy’s death. His interactions with co-workers at the big-box Hobby Lobby chain store are awkward at best, excruciatingly painful more often.
Robert Parsons plays the lead role exquisitely, an in-your-face guy tormented by both this world and his inability to gain entrance to another.
In contrast, the play’s two women provide gobs of mirth.
Will’s boss, Pauline, is strident, controlling, swears like a stevedore and despises having to do conflict resolution. As inhabited by Gwen Loeb, the character is almost a perpetual laugh machine.
Anna can be hilarious, too.
She’s a timid blonde who, like Will, hides out in the Boise store to gain access to the employee break room after hours.
“I thought I was the only wacko who did this,” she says.
While he blogs his novel in an attempt “to spread God’s word,” underscoring his own fervent Christian beliefs, she constantly reads tedious books on which she wants to superimpose exciting endings.
As Anna, Megan Trout’s rubbery face consistently evokes giggles as she fumbles for words and repositions her body at unfixed points somewhere between clumsy and coyly sexy.
Rounding out the cast are Daniel Petzold as Alex, the brooding, panic-attacked son Will had given up for adoption 17 years before, and Patrick Russell as Leroy, Alex’s brother-protector who gleefully flaunts obscenities on his T-shirts.
Tom Ross, who’s directed 24 productions for Aurora, which he inauguarated with Barbara Oliver in 1992, is at the helm of “A Bright New Boise,” which won a 2011 Obie.
He makes it all work, even for those like me who aren’t one of the 128 million.
Helping Ross achieve a theatrical triumph is a comparatively spare set as well as a marvelous monitor that, when not spewing in-house commercials, goes bonkers and broadcasts grisly medical channel operations.
I found 32-year-old playwright Hunter, a native of northern Idaho who attended a fundamentalist school growing up, adept at taking unusual subject matter and non-stock characters and cobbling together a theatrical work that tugged at both my mind and heart.
His use of Hobby Lobby, a real entity, as a fundamentalist foil also captivated me.
Critics have labeled its founder, David Green, a religious zealot. The Oklahoma City-based company, whose website says it is committed to “honoring the Lord in all we do,” made headlines by initiating a court fight over providing emergency contraception in its employee health-insurance policies — and for its stance against carrying Chanukah or Passover items alongside its Christmas and Easter decorations.
Theatergoers, depending on where their heads are, may find the play’s ending shocking or predictable, anticlimactic or powerful, muddy or clear.
No matter: The gestalt should be worth the price of admission.
“A Bright New Boise” runs at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, through Dec. 8. Night performances, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $16-$50. Information: (510) 843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org.