The title of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few, now receiving its regional premiere at Theatre Horizon, refers to the long-haul truckers who move goods across the country under cover of night. Yet it could also just as easily apply to the people that Hunter, who received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, has spent his short and fruitful career chronicling.
Of the three characters who populate this 2014 drama, only Bryan (Steven Rishard) has actually spent time behind the wheel of a rig. He parlays that experience into a self-published newsletter that purports to give a voice to the unseen, unheard people of his profession—those few who do necessary work but are often viewed with suspicion, frustration, or contempt. But each person onstage projects the essence of trapped loneliness that Hunter has almost molecularly captured in works like A Bright New Boise (produced locally by Simpatico Theatre in 2012) and Lewiston/Clarkston (brilliantly staged in New York last fall).
They include QZ (Suli Holum), Bryan’s former professional and romantic partner, a woman who chafes at the smallness of an existence spent “in the same 30-mile area my entire life.” At the top of the show, Bryan returns from a four-year absence to find QZ running the paper with Matthew (PJ Barth, a senior acting major at UArts), the nephew of their other cofounder, Jim.
Jim has been dead for several years when the events of the play take place, but his spectral presence occupies the stage as clearly as the flesh-and-blood characters—or the disembodied voices who call into the newsletter’s trailer office (rendered precisely by scenic designer Christopher Haig, with sun-drenched lighting by Maria Shaplin) and place personal ads.
The Few covers the familiar Hunter territory of untapped potential, disillusionment, and quietly desperate lives spent in an unforgiving landscape. (The playwright grew up in rural Idaho, where nearly all of his works are also set.) The writing is at its best when Hunter considers the internal struggles of his characters, all of whom want something bigger from their lives but can’t seem to realize the changes they so desperately crave. When Bryan explains the motivation for his absence or Matthew describes the anguish of life without his beloved uncle, you feel a palpable ache in your soul and your bones.
Short shrift for doomsday
Yet, more than other Hunter plays I’ve seen in the past, The Few also leans into predictable and melodramatic tropes that stifle the author’s undeniable flair for naturalism. Some of the dialogue sounds like a first-year playwriting student at his most bathetic. (QZ to Bryan: “When we were in high school, I never thought we would turn out to be such awful people. How did we turn out to be such awful people?”) A subplot about Matthew’s sexuality and history of abuse at the hands of a stepfather is simultaneously underexplored and overly obvious. And don’t even ask about the BB gun.
Matthew Decker’s direction doesn’t always smooth the rougher edges of the script. The production’s style tends uncomfortably toward broad comedy, which eclipses the drama roiling beneath the surface. The existential dread of Y2K that permeates the text—it’s set in 1999, and doomsday predictions form a cornerstone of the drama—never fully registers.
Voice to the voiceless?
For their part, Rishard and Holum turn in finely wrought performances, though Holum’s thick accent—a mix of Marge Gunderson and a Valley girl—occasionally grows distracting. Barth shows promise in his professional debut, but he could stand to learn some restraint; tall and loose-limbed, he punctuates nearly every word he speaks with an exaggerated gesture. Theatre Horizon has recruited some of the region’s top actors for the voiceover spots—David Bardeen, Jennie Eisenhower, Susan Riley Stevens, and Trey Lyford, to name a few—but Mike Kiley’s muffled sound design often renders them difficult to comprehend.
The same could be said about The Few as a whole. It displays Hunter’s prodigious gift for giving voice to a voiceless population, just as Bryan and QZ’s paper speaks for a group whose lonely occupation renders them silent. But it doesn’t always know exactly how to say what’s on its mind.
What, When, Where
The Few. By Samuel D. Hunter, Matthew Decker directed. Through April 7, 2019, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pennsylvania. (610) 283-2230 or theatrehorizon.org.
Theatre Horizon is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons wishing to purchase wheelchair-accessible seating may do so online or by emailing [email protected]. A relaxed performance will be given on Wednesday, April 3, at 7:30pm.