Written by sixth-generation Idahoan Samuel D. Hunter and currently drawing crowds in Berkeley, the Obie-winning play “A Bright New Boise” follows a pious man fleeing scandal-stained zealotry in rural Idaho to a fresh start in Boise, where he attempts to reconnect with his lost son and awaits the end of the world.

Playing at Berkeley’s Aurora Theater, the plot unfolds in a part of the country that does not normally get a lot of attention on the national stage: the anonymous expanses of Boise suburbia and the anodyne confines of the break room of a big-box craft store.

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Hobby Lobby, the store in which Samuel Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise” is set, is currently party to a case before the U.S. Supreme Court hinging on the rights of private employers to deny certain birth control to employees under the Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby owner, David Green, who says he runs his chain of 573 craft stores according to biblical principles, objects to the ACA’s mandate to provide insurance coverage meeting minimum standards that include contraceptives. The court will have to decide if the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects “persons” from government intrusion on religious practice, applies to for-profit corporations as well. The court is expected to rule on the case in by July. Follow the docket at Scotusblog.

It is here, amidst employee lockers, plastic furniture and a TV screen fitfully tuned to the Hobby Lobby corporate channel, where coworkers morph unwillingly into family and profit margins clash with the presence of a marginalized prophet by the name of Will. Standing alone on the darkened stage, Will opens and closes the play with incantations of “Now, now, now,” as he calls upon God to destroy this world and transport true believers to a better one. Along the way, the audience must reconsider any cookie-cutter assumptions it holds about people who cling to Messianic longings over the deliverance doled out at minimum wage in the temples of retail sales.Playing through December 8 at the Aurora Theater (Berkeley, California)

The Hobby Lobby staff consists of newcomer Will, his estranged and suicidal son Alex, artiste provocateur Leroy and the self-deprecating Anna who hides in the aisles when the store closes in order to read in the break room after-hours. The crew is tightly shepherded through their shifts, tiffs and register shortfalls by store supervisor Pauline, whose talent for turning chaos into order rests on reverence for the company line and distrust of labor unions. Between the time that Pauline hires and then fires Will, the break room provides them with a refuge in which to read, write and aspire, however pathetically, to a life in the arts. Then this purgatory turns confessional and erupts into a bully pulpit of hellfire and brimstone that consumes even their mundanely modest dreams.

The names of retail chains like Albertsons, Costco, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s circumscribe the horizons of the staff’s modest ambitions. For Alex and Leroy, the only beacon of hope that could possibly light the way out of their dead-end Hobby Lobby jobbies is a debt-laden degree from Boise State University. And even this rings hollow against the backdrop of a practical first step to a DIY education in the arts through the purchase of a Hobby Lobby glue-gun, pitched for a quick sale on the corporate channel.

Bright New Boise

Aurora Theater Company
Leroy (c, Patrick Russell*) tries to calm Alex (left, Daniel Petzold) during a panic episode as a concerned Will (c. back, Robert Parsons*) and Pauline (r, Gwen Loeb*) look on.

“A Bright Day in Boise,” like any good play, transcends its figurative location to address universal truths. But at the literal level, what impressions would a California audience unfamiliar with the place come away with after seeing the play? We learn that the woods around Rathdrum in Kootenai County are beautiful, because, despite the tragic event they conceal, everyone automatically responds that they are beautiful each time they are named. And we learn that the past 10 years of urban growth have turned Boise’s cow pastures into nightmarish stretches of 40-minute commutes.

The Californians who attended a post-show debate at the Aurora — California State University students and people who had purchased their show tickets on Yelp — don’t believe that Idaho has a corner on fundamentalist fanatics. Could this play have taken place anywhere other than Idaho, someone asked? Yes, said some, as long as it was a rural area. Others heartily disagreed, pointing to the Jonestown massacre memorial just a few miles away in Oakland, home to many People’s Temple followers.

The consensus? Wherever people long for deliverance from a meaningless life, the promise and perils of Boise await.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.