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In Griffin’s heartbreaking “Pocatello,” a hunger to connect

It is not very often that a character on stage is so real, so bereft, and so lonely that you just want to jump out of your seat and give him a consoling hug. But Eddie, the central character in Samuel D. Hunter’s heartbreaking play, “Pocatello” – now in its Midwest premiere by Griffin Theatre – generates just that impulse.

Credit belongs to Hunter (a recipient of the 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship), who might well be dubbed the 21st century Chekhov of Idaho, and to the masterful direction of Jonathan Barry, that maestro of yearning. But above all, the key here can be found in the exquisite acting of Michael McKeogh, whose aching sadness, though mostly contained, is always palpable. He is ideally supported by the finely tuned ensemble of nine actors who surround him, but invariably fail to fully embrace him.

‘POCATELLO’

Highly recommended

When: Through Dec. 13

Where: Griffin Theatre at

Signal Ensemble, 1802 W. Berenice

Tickets: $36

Info: (866) 811-4111;

http://www.griffintheatre.com

Run time: 95 minutes

with no intermission

The place – and it is crucial – is Pocatello, Idaho, one of those heartland cities whose heart has been ripped away over generations as homesteaders became industrial workers, and, when the industrial plants died out, turned to minimum wage jobs at generic strip malls – soulless retail operations that replaced the mom and pop stores of Main Street. Those who could, have already left town. Some, however, are emotionally unable to do so.

Despite his college education, Eddie – a mostly closeted gay man – has been unable and unwilling to leave his Pocatello “home.” Instead, he has been managing a restaurant (unnamed, but clearly an Olive Garden, if the bread sticks, and Joe Schermoly’s fine photo-realist set, are any indication), and has devoted every last ounce of energy, and more, to its success. Despite all his efforts, however, the place is slated to close – a fact he cannot bring himself to disclose to his employees, or to his small, dysfunctional family.

Eddie’s attempts to forge a connection with his own family fail horribly. He can no longer bond with his detached and disapproving mother, Doris (Lynda Shadrake), or with his successful, but angry and cold-as-ice older brother, Nick (Sam Guinan-Nyhart), who has moved to a bigger city. Nick’s wife, Kelly (the beautiful Nina O’Keefe, who has relatively little to say, but whose face expresses everything), tries to show compassion, but her loyalties are to her husband.

Eddie’s efforts to care for his staff are only partially successful. Max (Morgan Maher), whose drug history made him unemployable until Eddie gave him a chance, is not entirely on track. Isabelle (Allie Long), a spitfire with a heart, is kind but not rule-bound. And Troy (Bob Kruse), who is trapped in a long but troubled marriage to Tammy (Mechelle Moe), his high school sweetheart, is always in crisis mode. Tammy has turned to alcohol to numb the sense that her life will never turn out as she planned. The couple’s daughter, Becky (Becca Savoy), has an eating disorder rooted in her parents’ dysfunction and her own ecological disaster nightmares. Her grandfather, Cole (Sandy Elias), is in the early stages of dementia.

Michael McKeough (from left), Allie Long, Bob Kruse and Morgan Maher in Griffin Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of “Pocatello.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Michael McKeough (from left), Allie Long, Bob Kruse and Morgan Maher in Griffin Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of “Pocatello.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

All this might sound like a litany of sorrows beyond bearing. And indeed, to watch Eddie’s desperate attempts to connect on every level, and to be rejected and betrayed at every turn – is heart-wrenching. Yet Hunter finds a certain beauty in the pain. And as Berry has demonstrated many times before, he is unequaled in his ability to orchestrate the failure of human relationships, especially as they are played out around a dinner table.