It’s training day at the Clarkston Costco warehouse. Chris (Sam Lilja) is the veteran, instructing newcomer Jake (Taylor Trensch) on the procedures. They are not complicated: Move this inventory from this box to this shelf; repeat. Show up on time. And try not to break anything. It’s grunt work, but solid employment for the natives of this humble berg on the Idaho/Washington border.
Only Jake isn’t a native. He’s that rarest of birds — a newcomer who seems to want to slow down and take root in this town best known for being a stop on the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a stopover on their route to the Pacific Ocean, and nobody has thought much about it since then. It’s like a lot of small-town life: The dull wallpaper of Americana. So what brings Jake here?
Clarkston, Samuel D. Hunter’s world premiere at the Wyly Theatre (a companion to his prior play Lewiston, also set in the creaky Upper Midwest), has a hint of mystery to it, not unlike most classic-structure character-driven plays, of which this falls firmly within the tradition: Three characters, minimal set, one act (though, at 105 minutes, not a short play). The drama derives from the interpersonal relationships, the reveal of information Jake and Chris secrete and only dole out occasionally. That’s not a lot of forward-thrust to sustain a play (unlike, say, All My Sons the reveals never rise to the level of “caused the deaths of soldiers”), though for the first two-thirds, you don’t really notice: You do get caught up in their lives.
The more interesting life, as it turns out, is Chris’. He’s a hotbed of hidden emotions. Gay but largely closeted, with a meth-head mom (Heidi Armbruster, all day-sweats and trembling lower lip) and absent dad, Chris aspires to be a novelist (he’s applied to the prestigious and exclusive Iowa Writers Workshop) and is saving up money to get out of Clarkston. Jake, though, is the emotional opposite. Out and proud, from a family of means, he over-shares like that person on Facebook we all want to unfriend. But his secrets are more dire: He’s suffering from a form of Huntingon’s disease that should kill him within the decade. He’s looking for real world experiences … which, apparently, include systematically destroying Chris’ life.
Oh, dear. We all have a Jake in our lives. Deeply insecure but defiantly unapologetic, he seeks to live others’ lives for them: Interceding in their affairs, betraying confidences, acting out of spite and malice without thought for consequences. For the first half of Clarkston, you think this will be his story, but it’s really Chris’ — a prosaic tragedy, as if Willy Loman got cut down before he even met Linda. The transition, though, feels abrupt, and when you realize the pain Jake has caused, it’s difficult to sympathize with him at all … which makes the ending (seemingly hopeful, despite everything that came before it) feel tacked-on and inauthentic.
Still, for most of the performance you do get caught up in the details of these lives, their sadness and their specificity. It’s a chamber piece with promise.