America, it has been said, is a nation of immigrants; but anymore, it might be more accurate to call it a nation of travelers. With more cars than any other nation (more than 255 million) and the world's fifth-highest rate of car ownership per capita, the U.S. is a land of people on the move.
Two plays by Sam Hunter running in repertory simultaneously at Boise Contemporary Theater and Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York City, Lewiston and Clarkston, are must-see musings on a particularly American kind of wanderlust—twins that have as much to say to each other as to audiences. Set in the border towns of Lewiston, Idaho; and Clarkston, Washington, respectively, each features a pilgrim related to Meriwether Lewis or William Clark—the two pioneers whose trans-continental journey opened the west—who, like their ancestor, is in search of new horizons.
Lewiston, which opened Feb. 6 at BCT, is more about a return than an exodus. One day, while manning their fireworks stand a few miles outside Lewiston, Alice (Patsy Wygle) and Connor (Tom Ford) meet a young woman dusty from the road: Marnie (Tess Makena), Alice's estranged granddaughter and, at least from Marnie's point of view, presumptive heir. Alice is on the brink of accepting an offer on her plot of land, but Marnie, fresh from abandoning college and a boyfriend in Seattle, has come to make an offer of her own, hoping to turn the property into a farm.
From the outset, Marnie is not an adept negotiator, bringing to the table a fraction of what a developer has offered Alice for her land and behaving aggressively toward her hosts, pitching a tent on the property and threatening to sue if she doesn't get her way. Alice and Connor, however, treat her warily but like a relative, giving Lewiston the tone of a family rather than business drama. It quickly becomes clear that Marnie's off-putting behavior masks gut-churning dyspepsia of the soul, and that for her, returning to Lewiston is more of a primal urge than a business trip.
Makena plays a manic Marnie, driving home that the character feels impelled to visit her grandmother's property, even though going there can only cause her pain; but Wygle steals the show with a nuanced portrayal of an ageing woman with few options, a dependent best friend and a troublesome granddaughter on her hands. Her portrayal sweats the details down to her hair dye.
Clarkston is almost the mirror opposite of Lewiston. Where Marnie tracked east along the Lewis and Clark trail, Jake (E.B. Hinnant) travels west from Connecticut after being diagnosed with Huntington's Disease and dumped by his boyfriend. Obsessed with the journals of his ancestor, William Clark, he stops in Clarkston after he nearly crashes while driving the Lewiston Grade, and the play opens on his first day working at the Costco there.
Joining him on the night shift is Chris (Hunter Hoffman), a closeted gay writer who dreams of attending the Iowa Writers Workshop, and whose relationship with his mother is strained from her years of drug abuse. He and Jake share not so much a romance as a mutual dependency: Chris needs to be pushed out the door to pursue his dreams, and Jake needs a companion to help him on his way to the Pacific.
The playwright, Sam Hunter, is an Idaho native, and his scripts are full of Idaho-isms. They're also thoughtful about Idaho as a place equally suited for settling down or escaping. Lewiston and Clarkston both feature gay characters who know how dangerous being gay in Idaho can be, and others figures driven by angst or despair. They unwrap why one person might dream of leaving the Gem State, and why another might think it's as good a place as any to hang one's hat.
In the backgrounds of these do-not-miss plays are Lewis and Clark themselves, sometimes celebrated and sometimes scorned. Their long march is the stuff of legend, and Hunter has a realist's disdain for the romance that surrounds them. The places that bear their names are desolate, and studying their adventures is strongly linked with delusion, but Hunter mines them for the madness that is searching for a place in the world, only to arrive at a dead end.
At one point in Clarkston, Jake realizes a river landing from the Lewis and Clark journals is on the Idaho, not the Washington, side of the river, and that to get there, he would have to go backwards, away from the Pacific Ocean. Jake, whose physical limitations are becoming a larger part of his life, has shot past his mark. Here and elsewhere in these plays, Hunter reveals his thesis: that what his wandering characters want, or believe they want, may already be behind them.