By Karen Isaacs
As a New Englander, when I heard the title of Long Wharf’s new play, Lewiston, I immediately thought on Maine. A quick glance at the program, told me that this 90-minute world premiere is set in Lewiston, Idaho.
This play is written by Samuel D. Hunter, a talented young playwright whose other plays have received numerous awards and who was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as a “genius” grant.
Hunter sets his plays in small towns in Idaho, his home state; he is also fascinated by the expedition of Lewis and Clark that explored the northern part of our continent. The expedition, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, took the two men and their Army volunteers from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean in what is now Washington.
In Lewiston, Hunter gives us four characters, three of whom are related to Meriwether Lewis: Alice, an older widow eking out a living by selling fireworks by the roadside; her granddaughter, Marnie who shows up after years away; and Alice’s daughter, Marnie’s mother who is only a voice. Connor is another Lewiston resident who lives with Alice in a platonic relationship and helps out.
The play focuses on the arrival of Marnie who is horrified to learn that Alice had been selling off the family farm land as the town expanded until just 20 acres and the house remain. Alice is seriously considering selling that to the developer of an adjacent condominium project for a great deal of money AND a condo. Marnie is the stereotypical idealistic millennial. She is a vegetarian that established an urban farm in Seattle, a vegetarian and resolute in her determination to change the world. She has returned to Lewiston to claim the farm property; she feels it must remain in the family and is horrified that Alice may sell it. She views the property as her birthright.
But Marnie also has questions about her past. Her mother had died when she was young, a suicide, and Marnie had lived off and on with her father. She believes her college education and other benefits are the result of the money her mother left her. She also has a series of cassette tapes of her mother narrating her story of following the path of Lewis and Clark.
Marnie resents the fact that Alice has rarely been in touch since Marnie left Lewiston.
The play is about the hidden resentments and the unknown facts that have kept these two
apart. It is also about the creation of families and how people care for each other. Connor, who Marnie resents and at times insults, has taken care of Alice as she has faced aging and health issues. He knows, though Marnie doesn’t, why the land was sold.
running comment in the play is the way Idaho has limited the types and power of firecrackers that can be sold; they are now not more than sparklers. The displays that Marnie remembers from her youth are long gone.
The dialogue is colloquial and director Eric Ting and his cast has created characters that can both annoy you and touch you; they are also very real. Although I was initially annoyed by Marnie and her certainties, by the end of the play, I truly cared about all the characters.
Randy Danson as Alice shows us a woman who can be grumpy, unemotional, and hiding from the world. She is a woman who has suffered many hardships and loses in her lifetime. The sorrows and pains are buried deep inside. She may seem stoic but you feel there is terrible grief underneath it.
Martin Moran as Connor gives us a character that can be bossy but is also extremely caring. You see it in the way he treats both Alice and Marnie. When he decides to leave for a new job, you wonder what will happen to Alice but you also realize it is for his own good.
Arielle Goldman has the difficult task of making Marnie both the annoying self-assured, all-knowing young woman and the wounded child underneath. She does a very good job.
The set by William Chin immediately tells us so much, from the dirt and dust, to the ramshackle fireworks stand to the chairs Alice and Connor sit on. Brandon Scott as the sound designer and Lucy Owen as “the voice” as the tapes of Marnie’s mother are called, let us see the wonder of natural beauty Lewis and Clark saw.
Yes, there are some minor fireworks, as well.
So what is Hunter saying with this play? He is talking about urbanization, losing our wonder at the natural world, the limitations modern society puts on all of us, and so much more. That he does it with genuine characters and in just 90 minutes is wonderful.
Lewiston is at Stage II, Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Sunday, May 1. For tickets call 203-787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.