Thanks to the Denver Center Theatre Company’s New Play Summit, we had the privilege of seeing Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale — which had a reading at the DCTC in 2011 and earned a full production by the company a year later — before it became a major success in New York, with Hunter himself rapidly pronounced an important new voice in theater. Hunter’s The Few, now receiving its regional premiere in Boulder, is a slighter work, less complex and possessed of less emotional richness. But it’s more than worth experiencing for the author’s moving and compassionate exploration of loneliness. Hunter’s dialogue is absorbing: You feel you’re hearing real people, people you care about, and finding yourself sometimes irritated, sometimes surprised or delighted, occasionally deeply empathetic. You’re also experiencing the playwright’s profound commitment to the power of written language. The protagonist in The Whale, monstrously obese, suffering difficult, murky relationships, reached out to the world through his work with student essays from the online course he taught; the focus of The Few is a small newspaper for truckers, and the play is set in northern Idaho in 1999, when practically everyone in America was worrying about what the new millennium would bring. Perhaps all the world’s computers would fail, with blackouts, chaos, rampant crime and disruption of food and water supplies resulting.
The story begins four years after two long-distance truckers started The Few to alleviate the existential loneliness of their trade. Working with a woman friend, QZ, they interviewed truckers and recorded oral histories, writing up narratives in which these men and women shared their thoughts and lives. But then Jim, one of the founders, committed suicide, and the second founder, Bryan, who was in a relationship with QZ, walked out without a word of explanation. Left alone, QZ revamped the publication, achieving a fragile solvency by tossing out all content except a column and a horoscope — both written by her — and running personal ads.
Bryan’s return, as unheralded and unexplained as his departure, starts the action. It infuriates QZ, who makes it clear that she has no intention of allowing him to take The Few back to its roots. Though he actually owns both the paper and the decrepit office, Bryan is unlikely to cross her. Depressed and dysfunctional, he barely has the energy to get through his days, let alone undertake a revamp of the paper. But those trucker narratives did have profound significance — at least for Matthew, the nineteen-year-old would-be poet who helps QZ at the paper. He, too, suffers profound loneliness; his mother is an alcoholic, and his stepfather threatened to kill him for engaging in sexual activity with another boy. Over the years, Bryan’s stories provided solace and companionship, and he’s thrilled by Bryan’s return.
QZ’s personals have their own role to play for people desperate for companionship. The protagonists’ conversations are interrupted several times by the voices of truckers dictating their ads on the phone: “Looking for a lady co-pilot to navigate end times”; “Looking for healthy relationship through God according to King James Version, not perverted or twisted”; “Fat and proud seeking F.”
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There’s not a lot of action in this ninety-minute evening — with the exception of one surprising and hilarious scene involving a BB gun — and there’s also a major and perhaps unnecessary disappointment in the second act. The ending feels a little drawn-out and tentative, as if the author weren’t quite sure where he wanted to go. He certainly didn’t go where I wanted him to, but perhaps I was being sentimental.
Under the direction of Kate Folkins, the three actors work together beautifully. Lindsey Pierce is a tough and sometimes off-putting QZ, but she retains your concern and sympathy throughout. John Hauser’s Matthew is just as lost, herky-jerky, over-enthusiastic and soul-stifled as Matthew should be, bobbing up again no matter how often he’s swatted down, filled with a hope and energy the other two lost long ago. Michael Morgan makes for a profoundly convincing Bryan — irritating as hell in his weaknesses and vacillations, so sunk into his own misery that he can’t help hurting others, but still, in a circuitous way, reaching for love. Here, as in The Whale, Hunter deals in what Wordsworth called “the still, sad music of humanity” — and it pays to listen.
The Few, presented by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through November 15. Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 303-444-7328, betc.org.