"Lewiston" at Long Wharf

By Brooks Appelbaum

“Lewiston,” a world premiere by Samuel D. Hunter, is being given a handsomely designed (by Wilson Chin) and beautifully acted production at Long Wharf Theatre, running through May 1st. Eric Ting has returned to Long Wharf from his new position as Artistic Director of California Shakespeare Theater, and he guides “Lewiston” with a nuanced and intelligent touch. The problem, however, is the play itself. Despite some vividly drawn, original characters, the too-familiar central conflict has been explored before, and more forcefully, in numerous works by playwrights such as A.R. Gurney, Horton Foote, and Sam Shepard, among others.

Small-town Idaho provides the backdrop of Hunter’s imagination (he grew up in Moscow, Idaho), and here he uses Lewiston, named for Meriwether Lewis of the 1804-1806 expedition with William Clark, as a metaphor for travels and travails both literal and emotional.¬† The plot functions on four levels: the characters’ present, their past, their distant past, and the historical past of their ancestor, Meriwether Lewis, along with his legend.

In the present, Alice (the marvelous Randy Danson) and Connor (a terrifically touching Martin Moran) perch on a parched homestead on the outskirts of Lewiston, attempting to sell fireworks from an outdated stand while Alice decides whether to sell this, her last piece of property, and move to the comfortable condominium that will be built in its place. From out of her past comes her granddaughter, Marnie (Arielle Goodman, in a fierce and evocative performance), equipped with backpack, tent, and enough money to buy the land from her grandmother and thus both keep it in the family and preserve it from encroaching development.

On the third plot level, both Alice and Marnie are haunted by a family figure whose identity gradually emerges and makes sense (to us) of their oddly cold and combative relationship. And furthest back, on the fourth level, the life of Meriwether Lewis reverberates into their world.

The fighting between grandmother and granddaughter has a few surprising moments but is, in the main, the kind of dispute we’ve seen before. Alice and Connor’s friendship, however, is far more original and interesting. Connor himself is, from this reviewer’s perspective, the most quietly fascinating and at the same time mysterious character of the three; tellingly, although he played a role in the family story long ago, his own story, apart from Alice, is lived largely offstage.

Hunter’s writing is strongest and most engaging when he uses objects to convey emotions. Here, fireworks -- that may or may not explode -- create both humor and atmosphere, and a zip-up one-person tent speaks volumes. Visually, Ting makes the most of this with his designers. In addition to Chin’s set, the costumes, by Paloma Young and the lighting, by Matthew Richards, make this tiny piece of Lewiston, Idaho absolutely believable.¬†Although Hunter himself overuses sound effects to tell this story, their execution is perfectly done by designer Brandon Wolcott.

Hunter has written a companion piece, called “Clarkson,” and although “Lewiston” does not make me eager to see it, this play does make me want to see his earlier works, such as “The Whale,” and future pieces that explore new ground. If his plot is thin here, his voice is commanding, and his empathy for people who live on the lonely edges of life is welcome.

“Lewiston” continues at Long Wharf’s Stage II through Sunday, May 1, 2016. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org

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