Tim Sanford on Pocatello
The Great American Family play looms large in our theater history. Some might argue it is its starting point: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Death of a Salesman, Awake and Sing. Arthur Miller’s seminal 1956 essay, “The Family in Modern Drama,” acknowledges this primacy. Yet the essay also observes that, even in 1956, the realistic American family play was beginning to encounter some resistance. Part of this resistance is stylistic, as evidenced by the poeticism of The Glass Menagerie or Our Town. But the resistance was also social. The notion of the ’50s nuclear family was already just a myth in the ’50s. The father figures in The Glass Menagerie or A Raisin in the Sun are long gone, and the offspring in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf never arrives. By 1988, as if to amend his earlier essay, Miller observed in an interview, “Nowadays the family is broken up, and people don't live in the same place for very long.” However, the American drama still wrestles with the specter of family, even as its social and stylistic permutations become increasingly varied.
In Sam Hunter’s last play at Playwrights Horizons, The Whale, that staple of the living room drama, the sofa, takes center stage and serves multiple domestic functions. The protagonist, morbidly obese Charlie, almost never leaves it. He has all of his social interactions on it. It becomes his workplace, as he teaches an online literature course. It’s his dining room, as he eats all of his meals on it. He even sleeps there. The force that sofa exerts on the play feels gravitational as the intense emotions evoked by the play accumulate and burst at its climax.
The forces at work in Sam’s latest play, Pocatello, feel conversely centrifugal. Its ten characters represent several different families, all of whom seem subject to forces that hurl them out of their small town Idaho homes, and for many of them, out of their town as well. One of the town’s few still-functioning restaurants, part of a cheesy, ersatz Italian national chain, serves as the play’s sole location, its fraying colorlessness providing just the right neutral ground for characters that are either one step ahead of their demons, or one step behind their dreams. Unsettled and restless, everyone seems to be on paths of least resistance, which somehow lead them here. Even the play’s eldest character walks out of his assisted living facility, and travels miles just to show up there. As for the workers, one of the restaurant’s four employees articulates her relationship to her job thus: “the only reason to work at places like this is you don’t need to care.” Only one of the characters, Eddie, seems determined to make a go of it, to save the failing business and to organize quality time with his mother and out-of-town brother. But the collective ethos of the town and its disaffected inhabitants fights against him.
Eddie is the one character who wants to be in a great American family play. He seeks family connection, resolution and healing with his brother and mother. But the irony is that he seeks it outside of the home in a chain restaurant that ultimately serves as an emblem of the American family’s dissolution. So Eddie faces many distractions from his goal. The restaurant is not just a substitute dining room; it is also the workplace, filled with the personal dramas of all his employees. The few customers they have bring in their own family dramas as well. As a workplace drama, it bears a passing resemblance to The Flick, in that its stylistic aims feel at first ensconced in realism. But like The Flick, Pocatello finds rhythms that feel almost musical in their ebb and flow, from the orchestrated counterpoint of the opening scene in which we meet all ten characters at their most volatile, to the comedic scherzo of Eddie’s scenes with his employees, where he ineffectually attempts to rein them in, to moments of plaintive obbligato when he pleads with his brother and mother to stay with him. It is in these scenes where we feel most acutely the ghost of their dead father and the almost visceral need to escape his touchless clutches. But in the end, Eddie will not be thwarted. He will have his family play, and so, thank God, will we.