In the past five years, playwright Samuel Hunter has graced the stage with two fascinating products of American society—Charlie from The Whale and Eddie from Pocatello. While Charlie is literally trapped in his home due to weighing 450 pounds, Eddie is just as isolated by his lack of emotional connections.
Eddie (Michael McKeogh) is the manager of an Italian chain restaurant where the waiters provide unlimited breadsticks and sing a specialized version of happy birthday. The dining room of this restaurant—complete with a crackling speaker looping “Italian” melodies—serves as the center for the play’s action and as the center for Eddie’s need to feel important.
The Griffin Theater Company has produced an enjoyable and thought-provoking Chicago premier for this fantastic script, which starts with an interesting experiment in creating three family structures. The play opens with two tables of diners carrying on simultaneous conversations. Credit director Jonathon Berry and the cast of 10 actors for timing the conversations so key lines at both tables are emphasized without detracting from the intended experience of being surrounded by the white noise of the restaurant.
At the more central table, we have Eddie’s brother (Sam Guinan-Nyhart), sister-in-law (Nina O’Keefe), and mother Doris, who is played so well by Griffin ensemble member Lynda Shadrake that audience members will have flashbacks to memories of their own mothers being too busy and distracted to see their deeper needs. Eddie’s interactions with each character build to an after-hours meal between Eddie and Doris that provides the play’s most enduring moment.
At the second table, we have Troy’s (Bob Kruse) family. Troy is a waiter at the restaurant dealing with a turbulent family that includes a father (Sandy Elias) suffering from dementia and his teenage daughter Becky (Becca Savoy), who hates life in Pocatello and displaces that hatred toward her family. Eddie’s decision to hire her to bus tables while she is suspended from school is, like all of Eddie’s decisions, well-intentioned but doomed to failure.
The third family is the staff including three servers, each disdaining their job but also embracing the comradery that exists among those who work in restaurants. Isabelle (Allie Long), a free-spirited waitress, provides a soft-spoken contrast to Eddie’s overzealous dedication to keeping this restaurant from closing for good. She addresses Eddie’s great weaknesses by explaining that what he fails to understand is that people work in chain restaurants because they do not want to care about their jobs. Like so many Americans, Eddie has invested his self-worth into a work existence that provides no rewards for loyalty.
Pocatello is at the crest of a changing America. Some 20 years after family-owned restaurants were driven out of business by the more powerful corporate restaurant model, many of the middle-level chains are shuttering their doors with signs indicating to “visit our other locations at…” (if they bother to leave a sign at all). Successful restaurants are now either expensive to the point of being prohibitive to most Americans or quick, waiter-free experiences (Panera on the high end—McDonald’s on the low end). If an Olive Garden in the middle of Idaho closes, does anyone care? Eddie does, but his lonely voice may be the last for a dying industry.