Opening the season, “Clarkston” is a bold but risky choice for the Penobscot Theatre Co.’s new artistic director Jonathan Berry, whose focus is on craft and character. But the production’s fine and touching performances pull the audience in on an emotionally charged undercurrent, leaving theatergoers hopeful about the human condition.
Jonathan Berry chose the intimate three-character drama to kick off his tenure and to introduce himself to the community. At first glance, the production appears to be adrift on the cavernous stage of the Bangor Opera house, but the strong and layered performances pull the audience close.
Written in 2013 by Samuel D. Hunter, “Clarkston” portrays the budding friendship between 20-somethings Chris and Jake and how they are able to bond despite differences in their upbringing and circumstances.
The play is set in Clarkson, Washington, where Jake, a descendent of the explorer William Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame, meets Chris working at a Costco. The two have little in common other than their age, gender and sexuality.
Jake has left home in Connecticut carrying a dog-eared copy of “The Journals of Lewis and Clark.” He wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies.
Chris, whose troubled mother Trisha was 16 when he was born, is waiting to find out if he’ll be accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He also is trying to distance himself from Trisha and live independently.
Daniel Skinner is delightfully delicate as Jake, the privileged Middlebury College grad who has everything but a long life to look forward to due to a debilitating diagnosis. His obsession with Lewis and Clark’s journey could have been played as pathetic but Skinner makes it an admiral personal quest. By looking to the past, Jake avoids looking to a future that is short and bleak. Skinner’s nerdy Jake is the perfect foil for the working class Chris, played by Carter Scott Horton.
Like a flower in springtime, Horton slowly and hesitantly opens Chris up to Jake and the audience. The actor wears this working man’s weariness like ankle weights and his defensiveness like armor. That is how Chris has survived his tumultuous upbringing.
As Horton slowly reveals this character’s pain, it oozes off the Opera House stage and laps at theatergoers’ ankles. It is one of the most emotionally honest, revealing and devastating performances in a PTC production since the father in “Fun Home” stepped in front of a truck in May 2019.
Jenny Hart, who played the obsessive mother in Travis Baker’s “Hockey Mom” earlier this year, plays a more manipulative and desperate woman in “Clarkston.” Trisha is a destructive force in her son’s life and she slings words at him that pierce his flesh like arrows.
The local actress expertly rides the waitress’ emotional waves as she goes from a concerned mother who misses spending time with her adult son to slinging insults she knows will unsettle his soul. Hart’s portrayal is so real and raw that theatergoers leave hoping Chris has the courage to never see or speak to his mom again.
Technically, “Clarkston” is almost perfect as Chez Cherry’s set realistically looks and feels like the aisle of a warehouse store. Tony Gerow’s lighting design is bright and strangely stark but fits the setting. The sound design by Neil E. Graham and costume design by Alexis Foster complement the character and the story perfectly.
The characters in “Clarkston” constantly look westward as did the explorers who charted the territory the United States bought from France and sparked the nation’s 19th century belief in Manifest Destiny. It is a view familiar to Midwesterners but not to most Mainers. “Clarkston” does challenge an audience in Bangor to stretch its imagination past the nearby frontiers of New Hampshire and Vermont.
Berry, who replaced Bari Newport, came to Bangor from Steppenwolf Theatre, the legendary Chicago company known for birthing searing dramas such as Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” and Sam Shepard’s “True West.” It may take him more than one season to entice local theatergoers to embrace his artistic vision that, so far, focuses on character rather than on songs or spectacle. That is a welcome change for this audience member.
Theatergoers should know that “Clarkston” runs more than 90 minutes without an intermission. Ushers should warn theatergoers to use restrooms before the show so that people don’t get up in the middle of it to visit the lobby and distract the actors and others in the audience.
Penobscot Theatre Co.’s production of “Clarkston” will run through Oct. 2 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St. For ticket information, visit penobscottheatre.org or call 207-942-3333.