Armageddon can't come fast enough in "A Bright New Boise."
The apocalypse is eagerly awaited by many of the timecard punchers at an Idaho location of arts and crafts chain store Hobby Lobby. The search for meaning often leads to gloom amid the glitter shakers and glue guns of Samuel D. Hunter's Obie-winning family drama. A compelling glimpse at the evangelical impulse, "Boise" finds some comedy in the tragedy of people longing for the end of the world. Astutely directed by Tom Ross, Hunter's sharply observed slice-of-minimum-wage-life drama makes its regional premiere through Dec. 8 at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company.
Pinched by the bitter reality of the working poor, the employees slaving away at the Hobby Lobby are all lost in one sense or another. Richard Olmsted's set cleverly evokes the existential limbo of the break room -- from the harsh fluorescent lights to the white noise of a TV caught between channels. From day one, workers are instructed to spout corporate doctrine, content themselves with $7.25 an hour, and most importantly, avoid all thought of unionizing. Thinking, in general, seems off-limits in the depressingly vapid ecosystem, the realm of Muzak and desperation.
All of that goes down fine with Will (the always engrossing Robert Parsons), who has come to Boise fleeing a scandal at the evangelical church he helped found. He tolerates the banality of blue-collar life because he believes that God will soon rain fire upon the land and smite all the unbelievers. So, no health benefits isn't exactly a deal breaker for him.
On the eve of what he believes is the Rapture, he has arrived to reconcile with estranged son Alex (Daniel Petzold), a lost boy with panic attacks and identity issues. He also catches the eye of the chipper manager Pauline (Gwen Loeb), who has a fondness for crafting order out of chaos, and the irrepressible but mousy Anna (an explosive turn by Megan Trout), who sneaks into the break room after closing because she has no place at home where she is allowed to read. Only Alex's stepbrother Leroy (Patrick Russell), a punky art student who makes T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "You Will Eat Your Children," suspects there may be danger lurking beneath Will's amiable facade.
Parsons channels the intensity of religious zealotry. He evokes the seduction of the apocalypse for those who are deeply disenchanted with the state of the world. Standing in a parking lot chanting a prayer of doom, the anguished Will calls upon the Almighty to end it all: "Now. Now. Now."
Hunter deftly captures the alienating nature of working a dead-end job day in and day out with little hope of ever paying the bills, leave aside clawing your way up into a career that actually speaks to who you are. Anna, a high school dropout, bounces from one sales clerk slot to another, only escaping the tedium of the sales floor through her books. She, like Will, is desperate for a narrative to cling to, a story that will make sense of her life and why she's here. Trout bubbles with pent-up exuberance, the need to connect to someone, anyone.
The thwarted quest for meaning running through this Midwestern tale is nothing less than harrowing. Hunter etches a motley assortment of dreamers and misfits who potently represent the malaise lurking just beneath the surface of things these days.
If the big reveal at the finale seems a little anticlimactic, it's hard to dismiss Will's lust for the apocalypse. His unshakable faith in a vengeful God comes from within. As he puts it: "There are greater things in life; there have to be."
In this blistering critique of America as a consumer wasteland pockmarked by big-box stores and bleakness, the Hobby Lobby may well be the seventh circle of hell.
By Samuel D. Hunter,
presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Through: Dec. 8
Where: Aurora Theatre,
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours,
10 minutes, one intermission