By Mike Fischer
Special promotional content provided by Forward Theater Company
Forward Theater chose Samuel D. Hunter’s Lewiston/Clarkston – filmed on stage in the Playhouse at the Overture Center and streaming online from April 9 to April 25 – before the pandemic. But it aptly captures the isolation so many of us have been feeling.
Two one-acts that Hunter joined at the hip for what he calls “a play in two parts,” each half of Lewiston/Clarkston involves lonely misfits, confirming Hunter’s own sense that the characters in his plays rarely “feel at home in any way.”
But at the same time, Hunter’s characters long for something better. “I actually have a really unshakeable faith in the value of community and human connection,” Hunter has said. “I think that’s where the plays are coming from.”
Along with his recent play Greater Clements, Lewiston/Clarkston goes further than any other Hunter play in exploring the foundational American myths through which we tell ourselves that we are in fact connected, as a single people with a shared story.
It’s no accident that parts of both Lewiston and Clarkston take place on July 4. Or that Lewiston features descendants of Meriwether Lewis reading from Lewis’ journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition, while Clarkston includes a descendant of William Clark reading from Clark’s journal of that expedition.
Can these old stories of undaunted courage and rugged individualism offer Hunter’s characters a way forward? And can myths of American exceptionalism offer us a way forward by making America great again? Can we turn to the past to find our future? Or should we pull the statues down and start over?
Fizzling Fireworks in Big Box America
An Olive Garden restaurant. A Hobby Lobby store. Interstate truck stops. The Costco where we spend time in Clarkston: The Idaho we see in Hunter’s plays is indistinguishable from most anywhere else in Middle America. As the surrounding mountains continually remind Hunter’s characters, we’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Or, in Lewiston, a condo complex, much of it built on a family ranch Alice has already sold when we first meet her, tending a roadside fireworks stand to make ends meet while wondering whether to sell the developers what little land she still owns.
Acutely aware of her history and loving the land, Alice nevertheless feels the burden of the past as she considers letting it go. Much like the tame, safety-first fireworks she sells, that past has lost its onetime sparkle; the rockets and bombs bursting in midair no longer give proof of much. But she still sends them up, as distressed flares expressing her longing for what’s lost.
The big-box Costco in which Jake and Chris work the nightshift in Clarkston is much like those fireworks: a debased version of the American dream, in which a culture of consumption involving big tins of popcorn that we mindlessly eat before digital TVs replaces pastoral images of a land of plenty.
“All these stores like Costco in towns like this, hundreds of miles in between one another – maybe this is like the new West,” Jake says to Chris at one point. “Maybe we’re like the last American pioneers.”
Is it any wonder that Jake is as obsessed with distant relative Clark as Alice’s daughter once was with distant relative Lewis? Or that Jake has landed in Clarkston because he’s tracing his ancestor’s journey west, much as Alice’s daughter once literally retraced Lewis’ footsteps by walking the entire Lewis and Clark trail?
But what if that trail leads to a dead end?
A related question: What if the reason we’ve reached this particular end of the trail is because that dream was always misconceived? Our Founding Fathers weren’t just self-proclaimed sons of liberty. They also owned human beings and defended slavery. Lewis and Clark weren’t just explorers. They were also advance scouts for an imperial enterprise culminating in genocide.
“I just like the idea of them more than what they actually were, I guess,” Jake says of Lewis and Clark. In an interview about Greater Clements, Hunter identified such thinking as “the toxicity of nostalgia,” through which “we desperately try to relive things without admitting what they really were.”
Even as Hunter acknowledges the powerful undertow of these old stories, Lewiston/Clarkston gently suggests that we swim against the current. One repeatedly sees this dynamic at work within Lewiston/Clarkston, as characters wrestle with the histories they’ve inherited.
Watch these plays and you’ll experience this dynamic yourself, thereby practicing what Hunter continually preaches: theater embodies the sense of community we need. It offers catharsis for the pain we feel. And it allows us, together, to tell new stories about who we are and might yet be, individually and as a country.
“You’re not just sitting in the dark for 90 minutes in this receptive mood,” Hunter said, before the New York opening of Lewiston/Clarkston. Instead, you’re embarking on a much longer expedition with fellow audience members, moving north-by-northwest toward the end of the land, at “a moment in American history where we’re all treading very lightly on very thin ice,” he continued. “I think that can be very helpful.”
Lewiston/Clarkston won’t draw a map detailing the way forward; providing facile answers isn’t Hunter’s way. But Lewiston/Clarkston might help us pose the questions we need to ask ourselves and each other, as we embark on our own collective journey of discovery toward the nation we might yet become.
Even in a Big Box America of fast food and faster lies, we can still take a walk on the wild side and light out for something unspoiled, as pioneers working together to forge genuine connections and create a new world involving a shared history. What a path we might blaze. What places we might see. And what stories we could tell.
I hope you can join us to experience this one. For tickets to Lewiston/Clarkston ($40, with discounts for artists, students, educators, and anyone age 42 or younger), go to https://forwardtheater.com/show/lewiston-clarkston.