The paths we find ourselves traveling in life often leave us in destinations we never imagined, never intended to visit. But sometimes, those surprising paths can bring us to the places we need, even if they weren’t the places we wanted to go.
In Clarkston, a new play by Samuel D. Hunter now in its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center, that place is a Costco on the edge of Washington State. It’s an intimate look at how the paths of two men intersect unexpectedly—one who is in search of himself, and one who has almost given up on finding who he really wants to be—and how that bond changes both of them.
Jake (Taylor Trensch) is brand new in town, a very distant descendant of William Clark, the explorer for which the town is named. He’s a bit obsessed with his ancestor, reading his writings with all the reverence one might read a Bible or a book of poetry. He’s running from an illness that threatens to take his life before he’s ever really lived it, and overbearing parents who just want to help in the only ways they know how.
Chris (Sam Lilja) is a hometown boy, resigned to working in the Costco and not making much of a mark on the world. He secretly dreams of escaping the smothering small town and becoming a writer, but he’s hampered by a deep-seated mistrust of others courtesy of his mother (Heidi Armbruster), a recovering meth user who has done some not-so-nice things to her son in the name of a fix, yet is still driven by her love for her child to fight the demons of her addiction.
Hunter’s work is emotional and thought-provoking, but the play might not work as well without such wonderful, natural performances from the three actors. No one overplays their hand, striking such a nice balance that it can be easy to forget that it’s not just a conversation you’re overhearing. Lilja and Armbruster are especially heartbreaking in their fraught mother-son relationship, and Lilja and Trensch have a nice chemistry that builds as the play goes on.
The beauty of Clarkston is that it isn’t fantastical or whimsical. It is real in ways that can be hard to capture on the stage. It captures the mundane drama of life and how those around us are going through things we might never suspect or understand, how we are all explorers of our own futures, much like Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the American West. It doesn’t matter if others have come before you on your pathway. It only matters that you’re brave enough to make the journey.