POCATELLO is the Complete Meal

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Living in Hawaii, things seem to always be changing and stubbornly staying the same at the exact same time. It is something that has forged our individual and collective (community, “local” cultural, regional) identities and we are a unique population because of it. Even now, our neighborhoods are evolving: Kaka’ako is riding a swell of redevelopment and gentrification; Kapolei and Ewa Beach are slowly but surely building up more and more amenities to accommodate the large amount of families currently living there (and soon-to-be living there). A couple of weeks ago, the Local 5 Strike just reached a settlement in Waikiki (and our neighbor islands). In Aiea, Pearl Ridge mall is changing it’s look and tenants in an effort to bolster its clientele. We as a people, as a population, have weathered and endured many things, and we are a community, an ohana, for it.

That is not so in the town of Pocatello, Idaho.

Transitioning from an industrial economy to a service-based economy is never an easy transition, and the citizens of Pocatello have been hit hard. Mom and pop stores have been replaced by chain retailers, and when the paper mill that fed many jobs to the city shuttered, many realized they had to leave town and find prospects elsewhere. A cycle that is common to many in America (and even here in Hawaii), it’s a progression we see and lament, but are often unable to do much about. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter has crafted his script about an Italian middle-class dining chain restaurant that is floundering in this city, deftly and gracefully painting the struggles and difficulties of not only the ever-shrinking middle-class, but also the heart and soul of a man whose heart is tied to his hometown, and thus everything that happens and affects the town and its inhabitants is personal.

This is the setting for the production of TAG: The Actors’ Group’s newest production, Pocatello.

Set in a not-named Italian chain restaurant (think Olive Garden), the play explodes with activity. It’s “Famiglia Week,” a banner loudly proclaims. There are two families at the tables before us in the show, and both are having their own set of loud dramas. The families overlap in time with their dialogue, so do not fret if you can’t catch the entire scene in the cacophony, as the actors punch certain words that allow you to grab the gist. The appearance of the bustling, busy atmosphere is something that we can all be familiar with, either server side or customer side. That is, until flareups within the families happen, and they both leave, and we the audience learn that the families are relatives of the employees. Business is rough, so “Famiglia Week” was an (ill-thought out) attempt to get more people coming to the restaurant. The play follows the lives of restaurant owner Eddie (Justin Strain) and his staff of four servers: Troy (Al Lanier), Max (Neil O’Brien), Becky (Nancy Arnstein, double cast with Belle Abbas on certain nights), and Isabelle (Nanea Nomura).

As mentioned earlier, there are two families that come into the restaurant, and they are the ones that occupy the narrative and move it along. The first is Eddie’s family, which consists of his mother Doris (Amy Hegy Laurel), his brother Nick (John Portela), and his sister-in-law Kelly (Marty Wong). The other family we get to see a slice of is Troy’s family, which consists of his wife Tammy (Cindy Shea), his father Cole (John Mussack), and his daughter, Becky.

Hunter has crafted characters that have a lot of depth and story behind them, which mirrors his layered playwriting style. Initially, the characters seem like stock stereotypes, checking off boxes of tropes you have seen before. Then, as the play progresses you’re able to take that image of the character and watch them evolve into fully thought out people, and think to yourself “oh, I’ve seen this person before.”

Director Brad Powell pushed his cast to meet that depth and realism, as most of them met it with aplomb. Strain carries both the show and the restaurant as Eddie in a nuanced and honest performance as a man struggling with his business and his life, creating the emotional anchor and heart of the production. Lainer and Shea as Troy and Tammy deliver strong performances as a married couple that has found love is elusive, and fighting each other has become much more common, and both carry their characters in a very human way that allows us to feel sympathy for both of their plights. Their daughter, Becky (Arnstein), is a high schooler (and also portrayed by one), and while she parrots a lot of beliefs about the injustices of the world and animal rights (among other things), she also has some of the best and realest scenes on stage with the adults around her; Arnstein clearly had no problem living up to the performances around her, going toe-to-toe and coming out on top with mostly everyone she shared the stage with. The rest of the adult characters round out the show quite well- Portela’s Nick is quite the hot head, and Wong’s Kelly is the right amount of sweet to balance him out. Mussack’s Cole captures our hearts with his lack of agency, his fleeing memory, and when he is coherent and lucid delivers some of the most beautiful truths in the show. Laurel’s Doris closes the show with Strain’s Eddie, and we get to see her deliver a powerhouse performance of emotion that breaks both characters down and shows the true essence of the show: perseverance and love.

Unfortunately, Nomura’s Isabelle and O’Brien’s Max felt out of place the majority of the performance. Nomura didn’t really hit the emotional highs and lows that Hunter wrote into her character, leaving us with a very two-dimensional Isabelle. O’Brien on the other hand was very distracting on stage, often upstaging his fellow actors by doing nonsense in the back. His performance was a very shallow characterization of Max, and did not leave that “stereotype” territory that his other fellow actors did.

The design team is to be congratulated- they had a wonderful thing going on. Carlynn Wolfe’s costumes did the job- these are real people, and their wardrobes said exactly who they were in a heartbeat. The set design by Powell and Paul Yau, lighting design by Charles Wade, and sound design by Chris Teves worked to make this beautiful mess of an Italian restaurant- and I mean that in the best way possible. On one wall, there’s sprawling vineyards of Italy and on the other, a magnificent mural of Italian architecture. Fake grapes, unopened bottles of wine, and more shots of Italy grace the store, and one both (lovingly) is totally dedicated to everything Idaho. Even the music, which you would expect to be Italian, sounded like soft country to me. All of these worked together to make the perfect image of putting on a face, of trying to hold the façade up- it complimented the excellent work on stage very well. I mean, it’s supposed to be an Olive Garden inspired place- and the design team delivered in spades.

A solid production. Hunter has written a very complex and multi-faceted recipe, in which Powell and his team have executed wonderfully. Each of these characters has a story to tell, and it is framed by the struggle that a lot of Americans are struggling with today- making ends meet. TAG’s Pocatello is running through December 30 at the Brad Powell Theatre in Dole Cannery. For tickets, click here.

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