The recent world premieres that Dallas Theater Center has staged have tended to be musicals, like Fly By Night and Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, which are destined for bigger and brighter things in New York City. Although its latest premiere, Clarkston (playing through January 31 at Wyly Theatre) has a much lower profile, it deserves just as big an audience.
Set in and around a Costco in Clarkston, Washington, it centers on two men: Chris (Sam Lilja), a nighttime worker who dreams of being a writer and has a mother (Heidi Armbruster) with drug problems; and Jake (Taylor Trensch), a descendant of William Clark who’s come to town ostensibly to follow Clark’s trail across the United States.
As the two men work closely together stocking shelves and setting up displays, they bond over a variety of things, including one particular thing they have in common. It’s best to let the specifics be experienced by each individual audience member, but topics that emerge include health issues, sexual identity, family history, and how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Playwright Samuel D. Hunter quickly lays the groundwork to set up elements that will pay off emotionally later in the play. In fact, it’s a little surprising how swiftly you get invested in the lives of Chris and Jake. Their lives may appear ordinary, but their individual circumstances are far from it, lending the proceedings a drama that’s bigger than you would expect.
Taking place in the Studio Theatre on the 6th floor of the Wyly, there’s little set. An industrial, loading dock-type of stage is used for multiple locations, including inside the Costco, the parking lot, and several others. But the play never requires anything more; it’s the interplay between the three characters that matters more than what’s around them.
Although they’re around the same height, Lilja and Trensch have distinctly different body types that serve their characters well. Lilja is somewhat bulky and muscular while Trensch appears scrawny, and the physicality that comes along with their shapes both informs the plot and is informed by it.
The performances of all three actors are powerful. As more and more is revealed about their characters, Lilja and Trensch continue to add on layers, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, but never without good reason. Armbruster is only in a handful of scenes, but she makes the most of each one, especially her final appearance.
Clarkston is a small play with outsized impact. Premiering during the hustle and bustle of the holidays, not to mention competing with DTC’s annual production of A Christmas Carol right downstairs, it has the possibility of getting lost in the shuffle. Theater aficionados should not let that deter them; Clarkston is worth the trip.