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The complexity of connection – ‘Clarkston’

September 21, 2022
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Daniel Skinner (left) and Carter Scott Horton in "Clarkston." Daniel Skinner (left) and Carter Scott Horton in "Clarkston." (photo by Bill Kuykendall)

BANGOR – The power of connection – for good and for ill – is taking center stage at the Bangor Opera House.

“Clarkston,” by Samuel Hunter, opens the 49th season for Penobscot Theatre and runs through October 2. It also marks new artistic director Jonathan Berry’s directorial debut with the company. It’s a bold beginning, one that seems to speak directly to Berry’s tastes and passions as a theatre artist.

It’s an intimate piece, packed with emotional impact and driven by the relationships formed by family or fate and how our humanity is shaped by those relationships. It is a thoughtful, provocative and surprisingly funny play, with myriad juxtapositions and seeming contradictions brought forward by the complicated dynamic between the two young men at its heart.

Finding something meaningful and real between people is rare, a truth illustrated with heart, humor and hubris by the beautiful and challenging play currently gracing the Opera House boards.

In the Washington town of Clarkston, just across the border from Idaho, a pair of young men work the night shift at the local Costco. Chris (Carter Scott Horton) is the old hand, a local kid who’s working at the store while he figures out what to do next with his life; he dreams of getting out, but remains tied to his hometown. Jake (Daniel Skinner) is a new arrival, a kid from Connecticut who just graduated from Bennington College and received some bad health news. He’s on a bit of a personal journey – one involving following the trail blazed by his distant relative William Clark, noted explorer and the town’s namesake. Said trail passed through this very town.

What begins as a standard coworking dynamic – Chris is essentially Jake’s trainer, showing the new guy the ropes – soon begins to evolve into something more. As we learn the real reasons behind why Jake is here and why Chris is still here, we also bear witness to the gentle unspooling and reknitting of interpersonal threads. There’s real connection here, a budding friendship and – perhaps – something even deeper.

Truths large and small begin to bubble to the surface, with both men struggling to deal with the realities of their respective situations. Things only grow more complicated when Chris’s mother Trisha (Jenny Hart) makes an effort to re-enter the picture after a period of relative estrangement from her son, even as she does battle with some demons of her own.

Ultimately, Chris and Jake are forced to decide just where their respective journeys will take them from here – and whether their future explorations will be shared or solo.

“Clarkston” is a powerful piece of theatre, a story that probes the vast gray area that exists between how we see and how we are seen. It’s a tale of binding ties – the connections that we consciously make, yes, but also those that are made for us. Can we truly be who we are meant to be without struggling against those preexisting bonds, bonds to the people and places from which we came?

The answer we get from “Clarkston” is … maybe?

And that’s as it should be. There’s a layer of ambiguity stretched just beneath the surface of this play, one that allows for an even more effective exploration of the aforementioned gray. Now, that isn’t to say that the play lacks clarity – “Clarkston” is very upfront with its audience, freely and fiercely brandishing its emotional ups and downs - but rather that it allows us to recognize that even the most overt connections aren’t always cut-and-dried.

What Berry has given us is a meditation on what it means to connect and to be connected. “Clarkston” is a show that could easily play as a blunt emotional instrument if placed in unsubtle hands. Instead, Berry’s delicacy renders up snapshot after snapshot, moment after moment, of the slouching, shambling trek toward intimacy that marks that journey for so many. There’s an omnipresent push-pull at work here, creating a constant tension that crackles with emotional electricity.

At the forefront are Horton and Skinner, who are tasked with doing the heavy lifting – figuratively and literally. Their chemistry is undeniable, with each actor seeming to constantly raise the bar with an elegance and effortlessness. Horton as Chris captures that blend of ambition and apathy that marks so many small-town youngsters; he wants more, yet can’t seem to decide how to go about getting it. Skinner’s Jake exudes physical fragility while also exposing a surprisingly sturdy intellectual core; it’s a combination that informs every one of his actions – even the ones that might seem counterintuitive. And then we have Jenny Hart as Trisha, her current struggles stemming from those in her past; each of her appearances thick with a mélange of affection and toxicity. The history of codependence and conflict between her and her son is obvious in every word, spoken or otherwise. Bleak and harsh and painful and funny, it’s a marvelous turn from a marvelous performer.

Finding a way to feasibly create the inside/outside dynamic necessary to this piece must have been tricky, but the PTC production team manages to do just that. Using moving shelves and brick wall flats, scenic designer Chez Cherry has crafted a space that is both evocative and uniquely functional. He’s aided in that task by lighting designer Tony Gerow, whose sharp delineations help define spaces that might otherwise have been rather amorphous. Costume designer Alexis Foster’s combination of big-box uniformity and small-town chic is spot on, as is Neil Graham’s as-always effective sound design.

Yes, “Clarkston” is set in Washington state, but there’s no denying that one can see a reflection of its themes in our own region. This notion of connections sought and savored and sometimes squandered is universal, but the small-town spin likely rings familiar to those of us with binding ties of our own. With a compelling script, quality production values and three dynamite performances, “Clarkston” marks an auspicious start for PTC’s new leader.

Truly, a journey worth taking.

Last modified on Wednesday, 21 September 2022 12:38

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