A banner proclaiming “Famiglia Week” hangs over
diners’ heads in the chain Italian restaurant where Pocatello takes place. When you’re here, it seems to promise, family comes together. It’s all about the breadsticks and visions of communal dining. Branch manager Eddie (T.R. Knight), the protagonist of Samuel D. Hunter’s
pathos-driven new play, desperately craves the kind of togetherness promised by this corporate branding. Affable, caring, and clean-cut, he has done everything in his power to keep the doors open. But customers along this desolate stretch of the American West have dwindled. It’s a matter of time until the last lasagna bakes and the piped-in dinner music stops.
That would be a serious problem for the staff — if they knew. Young server Max (Cameron Scoggins) reckons with his meth addiction. Troy (Danny Wolohan) struggles to make ends meet and with a tortured codependent marriage to an alcoholic. Isabelle (Elvy Yost) moves from one low-wage job to the next. Gay and lonely, Eddie is torn up by his family’s alienation in the wake of his father’s suicide years ago. Pocatello follows his contortions to save the restaurant, provide for his employees, and make peace with his mother and brother.
Hunter is fast making a name for himself as a psychological-realist bard of “flyover” America, where Walmarts and pickups dot the roads and folks struggle to get by in a post-manufacturing economy. Those themes appeared in The Few, staged at Rattlestick Theater last season, and they resurface — often insistently — in Pocatello. (Both productions were directed by Davis McCallum.) The title refers to the name of this declining town; Eddie, who lives in an apartment, yearns to return to the homestead his great-grandfather built in a more hopeful era. But the symbol — reminiscent of the lost paradise of Belle Reve in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire — weighs heavily here: The house sits derelict, and kids go there to get high.
Hunter, who writes with poignancy about the wearying burdens ordinary folks bear, receives an assist from a robust cast. Knight is particularly good in the central role, revealing how Eddie’s apparent rigidness in the early scenes is actually a lifetime of disappointments carried in the shoulders. Eddie’s quick to help his mates and takes obvious pride in overseeing the dining room, but when the character can’t hold it in any longer, Knight lets tearful confessions flow without becoming overwrought.
The play opens with smart naturalism, pitting the aspirational setting against the narrative of defeated lives, and the playwright evokes an America that has gained big-box restaurants and retailers but lost community and perhaps decency. Having made these points early, Hunter proceeds to hold them in a death grip. By the drama’s midpoint, the suggestive discrepancies
between “Famiglia Week” and emotional reality have played out, and Pocatello
devolves into a traditional dysfunctional-American-family narrative (one with more characters than it needs). The surfeit of psychological and social woes covers up the moving moral plea Hunter issues through the emotionally bruised Eddie — imploring us to sit down together, let the healing begin, and share the breadsticks.