Theater has the power to transport us to any place or time imaginable, from Elizabethan London to the wilds of the Arctic or the far distant future. Sometimes, though, it takes you to a failing Olive Garden in a stifling Midwestern town in order to reveal the truth about what it means to be a family.
Such is the case, at least, in Samuel D. Hunter’s “Pocatello,” which Street Corner Arts presents at Hyde Park Theatre in a new production running through Dec. 16. Though only mentioned passingly by name, the setting of “Pocatello” is dazzlingly unique — all the action takes place in the dining area of a mid-level Italian chain restaurant. In a last-ditch attempt to save the business, the store’s manager, Eddie, has come up with the idea of “Famiglia Week,” though it’s never quite clear what that actually means in practice.
Thematically, though, “Pocatello” is all about family — the families we’re born into, the families we choose, and the families we’re thrust into as part of our jobs. The ensemble cast of 10 includes Eddie and his family; waiter Troy and his family; and the restaurant’s staff of misfits. Everyone in “Pocatello” is a misfit in one way or another, though, as the play comments pointedly on how large chains are erasing any sense of location or home in towns and cities across America, an erasure that inevitably seeps into American families as well.
“Pocatello” is a blackly comedic drama of interactions and reactions. The first scene introduces 10 ten characters during a busy lunchtime, where their multiple conversations fade in and out of each other, fugue-like. As the play progresses, we see different variations of these characters in scenes with one another, with pairings both expected and surprising. What the talented cast of the show excels at is listening and responding; as the plot ticks along, we see how each new encounter lands and how each relationship features its own unstated dynamics. Standouts include Carlo Lorenzo Garcia as the put-upon, neurotic Eddie; Amber Quick as the desperately unhappy Tammy; and David Scott’s delightful comedic timing as the somewhat meat-headed Max.
Hunter’s text does a fine job of riding the line between the comedic bits and the deeper tragedies at the heart of the play, never getting either too bleak or too over-the-top. Director Benjamin Summers is equally adept at this difficult task and has managed to help his actors find a unique voice for each of the 10 characters. Summers and his design team have created an almost immersive experience. As audience members, we feel like we are patrons inside this restaurant, watching as the business, and the families, fall apart.
Despite its somewhat depressing setting, and its cutting commentary on the senses of place and self in contemporary America, “Pocatello” is ultimately a play of hopefulness, in that it is as much about families pulling together as falling apart. In Street Corner Arts’ focus on getting this production just right, the scrappy Austin company has proven to be its own artistic family, one that is full of hospitaliano.
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 8-9 and Dec. 13-16
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.