Samuel D. Hunter on Pocatello
I grew up in a town in Idaho of about 20,000 people (big for Idaho, small for almost everywhere else). One hundred fifty years ago, my great-great grandfather was the first postmaster there, and 15 years ago, I was a cashier at the local Walmart, my first high school job. My relationship to my hometown is just that—existing somewhere in the tension between small-town pride and parking-lot desolation. And this tension has been working its way into my writing ever since I left.
I came to New York immediately after graduating high school with the hopes of becoming a playwright, and initially had no desire at all to write plays about Idaho. This took less than six months to change, and I haven’t stopped since. I never had any intention of being a “regional writer,” and I still don’t consider myself one. I also don’t feel any particular obligation to write plays set in my home state; if I suddenly had an idea for a play set in Helsinki, I wouldn’t hesitate to write it. But there’s something that keeps pulling my heart and mind back to the Northwest, something that I’m still navigating and articulating. Eddie—the main character in Pocatello who manages an Olive Garden restaurant in his quickly-disappearing hometown—is similarly connected to where he grew up. While I examine my roots through my writing, Eddie does it by desperately trying to keep his community together, even as it collapses around him.
Growing up, the closest Olive Garden was a seven-hour drive away in Boise—a quaint Tuscan villa nestled between a Men’s Warehouse, a Ross Dress-For-Less, and a shopping mall. For me, the experience of eating there was less about unlimited breadsticks and 1800–calorie entrees than it was about sitting around a large table with my grandmother, who has since passed, and with aunts, uncles, and cousins, who I knew would likely never sit at the same table again. These meals were, ultimately, about connecting and interacting in a genuine way—albeit in a fake place.
When my family ate at the Boise Olive Garden, we didn’t expect an authentic Italian experience, nor did we expect an authentic neighborhood diner when we went to Denny’s, or an authentic Chinese or French or Norwegian experience when we visited Epcot Center. The value of these places isn’t in their authenticity; it’s in our suspension of disbelief. The artifice of these places is the same as the artifice of a piece of theater, and in both cases we choose whether or not to have authentic experiences within that artifice. This idea is at the heart of Pocatello: the struggle to create an authentic experience—to forge true community—in a place that is being transformed into the endless artificiality of Walmarts, Applebee’s, and strip malls.
That sense of community is reflected not only in the themes of Pocatello, but also in its size. With ten characters, it’s by far the largest play I’ve ever written. I wrote a first draft of the play when I was asked to create a play for a company of ten non-Equity actors at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and at first the idea of writing a play of this size was daunting to say the least. But I decided to bite the bullet and write an opening scene that had all ten characters onstage—a ten-minute stretch of orchestrated chaos. Once I wrote the scene, I realized that it was an illustration of the ultimate problem that Eddie faces—ten people, all speaking at once, yet unable to truly talk with one another.
The new American small town has arrived, and it’s not pretty. It’s less than 20 years old, it’s owned by corporations, and it’s not built to last. So the question is: what are we to do? Eddie’s brother in Pocatello gives him the advice that many people—myself included— ultimately take: leave. But this play is ultimately about a man who refuses to do so, even if it means clinging to something as ridiculous as an Italian-themed chain restaurant. But more than clinging to a restaurant, Eddie is ultimately holding onto the idea of community, which is what all ten characters in Pocatello are looking for, even if they don’t know it—the perhaps naïve notion that we can sit in a fake Sicilian portico, sip sickly-sweet white zinfandel, eat over-sauced pasta and unlimited breadsticks, and genuinely, authentically interact with one another.
SAMUEL D. HUNTER