BERKELEY -- When Bay Area actor Robert Parsons reads a new script, he waits for the buzz. While reading playwright Samuel D. Hunter's "A Bright New Boise," the play premiering on Nov. 14 at Aurora Theatre Company's Addison Street stage, he got that "non-cerebral kick in the gut."
The play, set largely in the work break room of a Hobby Lobby craft store in Idaho, swirls around the lugubrious Will, described in a news release as "an ex-evangelical cult member" hoping to bond with Alex, the son he gave up for adoption.
Will, hunkered down amid dysfunctional co-workers who would test even a saint's patience, is on a double-whammy timeline. Alex is suicidal and Will is rushing to reconcile before Christ arrives with the Rapture and sweeps only believers into heaven.
"I'm the son of an Episcopalian minister," Parsons says in an interview. "There wasn't talk of the Rapture in our house, but I understand that world. I understand a churched house: a family that talks about God."
But evangelicals proclaiming a "more out-there, fringe sensibility" are alienating and hard for him to understand, Parsons admits.
Of course, actors have an unusual relationship to unpleasant people. Unlike the rest of us, there's nothing they like better than to nuzzle into the heart and under the skin of a mixed-up, awkward, broken, extremist character. Manic? Super! A habitual liar or religious fanatic? Our favorites!
Parsons' buzz came, in good measure, from moth-to-light attraction. He found himself imagining, "What is a life centered around a grass roots, reborn church element? How do they go about living?"
Getting hooked on character, auditioning, and landing the role were only the first steps in the 48-year-old actor's process. Immediately, the script presented challenges.
"Hunter understands difficult communication in high-stakes situations," he says. "People have a hard time gathering words, so there are midstream changes, cut off words. As actors, we usually have beautiful language -- this is chopped up."
The Will character is also onstage for most of the play, which doesn't allow Parsons transitional "reloading" time offstage. Instead, he has to jump-cut and fold into the rapidly changing scene while in full view.
The story covers four days, with multiple back stories and urgent, circumstantial developments. Parsons says it moves at a steady clip and director Tom Ross keeps the blocking (movement of actors on the stage) equally fluid.
"He knows the (theater's) three-sided view and we don't stick in one place. But he makes sure we do it organically," he says.
Although Parsons' first responses to a play are gut-level, he soon gets intellectual.
"I read the 'Left Behind' book (the first novel in a 16-volume series about the end times), because Will is writing that kind of book during the play. I listened to a lot of evangelical radio," he says.
The research cracked a fissure in his thinking, and through the gap, he glimpsed the Rapture's allure.
"I can see how it could be believable, because there's some assuredness to being taken care of," Parsons says. "It could give hope to someone who doesn't have it. Like my character says, 'There are greater things in life: there have to be.'"
Back in the less-imagined, but no less spiritual world of Parsons' day-to-day life, he works with his co-founder, actor Cloe Bronzan, to helm the Symmetry Theatre Company in Berkeley.
With a mission to produce gender-balanced theater (equal number of Equity contracts for women as for men in each show, play selection aimed at supporting female playwrights and directors as much as their male counterparts), Parsons holds a certain similarity to his character.
He's a zealous advocate of "more balance on the boards" and not without hope. Pointing to Pixar's "Brave," he says, "I think it's possible this is a winnable fight." The main character isn't "a manic dream girl," he insists, she's a powerful, believable hero.
"A Bright New Boise" opens Nov. 8 and runs through Dec. 8 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. in Berkeley. Performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Special related events on Nov. 19 and 22, Dec. 2 and 4.
For tickets or details call 510-843-4822 or visit aurora