By Pat Launer
Samuel D. Hunter writes about everyday folks in small-town Idaho, where he grew up. They’re ordinary people, faced by extraordinary circumstances – at least in the context of their fairly mundane lives.
In “The Whale,” a wonderful work that won multiple awards in New York last year, it was a 600-pound online teacher, eating himself to death. “The Few,” a less satisfying play that ran last year at the Old Globe, focused on a trio of losers, creators of a popular trucker newsletter facing extinction.
Now, we get his latest drama, “Rest,” commissioned by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, which presented a stunning production of “The Whale” last year.
Northern Idaho, once again. In the midst of a blizzard. This time, we find ourselves in an assisted living facility that’s about to be shut down. Only three employees are left, and there’s a hyperkinetic young cook who was just hired on for three days and is now snowed in. Only three residents remain, and one of them has gone missing. Gerald was a brilliant man, a professor of musicology, but severe dementia has taken his mind, and his wife has watched his diminishment with sad resignation and mounting frustration.
The roads are closed, the search team can’t get through, and besides being trapped in the building, each character is facing a personal crisis – pregnancy, divorce, faith, loss. Sometimes, Hunter’s plain folks can seem like ‘types.’ For example, there’s the religious zealot forced to confront his beliefs. Here, it’s the young fundamentalist cook (in “The Whale” it was a youthful Mormon).
Under the sensitive and astute direction of Martin Benson, the cast is outstanding, and all the characters ring true, melodramatic or neurotic though they may be. Broadway veteran Lynn Milgrim anchors the piece as Etta, Gerald’s no-nonsense, long-suffering wife, who knows plenty about music and honesty and secrets withheld.
Though the premise seems to share the snowy scenario of the recent film, “Nebraska,” the play takes unpredictable turns. And Hunter is such a skilled (and often humorous) writer that when he puts credible misfits in weird situations, we’re willing to follow him anywhere.
Michael Roth’s original music and soundscape are heart-rending and evocative. The set (John Iacovelli) and lighting (Donna Ruzika) provide a perfectly shabby, harshly lit ambience, a feeble attempt to make cheerful a place that is anything but. Still, despite the frigid weather, there’s warmth in camaraderie and empathy.
The world premiere, “Rest,” runs through April 27 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
Performances are Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. (Note: No evening performance Sunday, April 27).
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets, starting at $22, are available at 714-708-5555 or online at www.scr.org
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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