It’s only fitting that CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
Still, if the play’s characters suffer from inertia, its themes gather beautifully and stick to the ribs. So did the barbecue chicken and potato salad I ordered for dinner; I can’t speak for the tofu served with shaved brussels sprout salad that is also available.
Questions of American restlessness and rootlessness may gnaw at you while chatting with fellow audience members at the communal tables. Learning where we all came from, I found myself wondering whether our frequent and sometimes violent relocations reflect an atavistic impulse to explore or a more personal need to escape.
That turns out to be a ripe way to enter “Clarkston,” set mostly in a Costco on the Washington side of the river. There, Chris, a robust local, is showing Jake, an indirect descendant of William Clark, how to do the job of a late-shift stock boy. They carry giant jugs of cheese puffs and popcorn from pallets at one end of the space, now reconfigured as a rectangle with the audience on the two long sides, to display shelves at the other. Is this, the play asks, what’s left of the wild frontier?
If so, Chris (Edmund Donovan) doesn’t seem to mind. A deceptively unsophisticated type, with a blond brush cut, he has never lived anywhere beyond the twin cities and has never seen an ocean. On the other hand, frail Jake (Noah Robbins) majored in postcolonial gender studies at Bennington. Like Marnie in “Lewiston,” he has retraced an ancestor’s path from the country’s periphery to its mountain interior in hopes of finding something to belong to.
That he does not already feel that kind of belonging is not because he is gay, nor because he has Huntington’s disease and may not survive a decade. It’s more profound than identity or even death. He senses but cannot understand how privilege and intelligence have somehow, in him — and, the play implies, in the country as a whole — festered into confusion and anomie.
Despite that, he develops an intense relationship with Chris, full of switchbacks and mortifications. Some of the mortifications are the kind that result when two people who may not be ideally suited to each other have a great need and few options. Others are familial. When Chris’s volatile mother, Trisha, shows up, a tragic vein in the story is opened, with the heartbreaking Mr. Donovan at its surprising center.
You may recognize Trisha subliminally; she is played by Heidi Armbruster, who provided the voice of Marnie’s unstable mother in “Lewiston.” There are many such pointers in each play toward the other: Marnie and Jake both pitch tents — Jake badly; both plays include scenes that take place, somewhat baldly, on the Fourth of July. Unemployment, the closet and drug addiction are afflictions in common.
But “Clarkston” is the richer drama, with themes that are more tightly bound to characters and a plot both surprising and inevitable. Its perfect ending — for the first time using the space that was once Rattlestick’s stage platform — feels like a kind of apotheosis, or at least a small reward. Indeed, Mr. Hunter’s golden diptych, no less than Mr. McCallum’s spectacularly unspectacular production, suggests that small rewards may be the only kind available.