Tuesday, January 24, 2017

American Misfits

by John M. Baker

Playwright Sam Hunter
Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Sam Hunter’s plays take us down roads not frequently traveled on the American stage. Anchored in small towns and cities throughout the landlocked state of Idaho, the plays are often set in unglamorous locations and populated by characters on the margins of society. From the tarnished evangelical in A BRIGHT NEW BOISE seeking employment at a Hobby Lobby craft store to the 600-pound online teacher in THE WHALE eating himself to death in his apartment, Hunter's characters find themselves in simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary circumstances, navigating big questions of modern life. With his growing body of work, Hunter is slowly mapping what he calls “a quotidian America that is often hidden behind curtains and doors.” In the process, he’s capturing the beauty and ugliness, the fragility and ruggedness, the banality and spirituality of living in America in the 21st century. 

Though New York City is Hunter’s home now, his roots are firmly planted in Idaho. Born and raised in the state’s panhandle, Hunter can trace his family’s lineage back six generations to the region’s first homesteaders. This deep-seated connection to the Northwest — like Horton Foote and the South — is only part of why Hunter frequently sets his plays in his home state. “Idaho has become a useful landscape,” he explains, “because people don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about it.” You’ve probably never set foot in the towns of Hunter’s plays, but there’s still something recognizable about the employee lounge in A BRIGHT NEW BOISE, the one-bedroom apartment in THE WHALE, and the lobby of the assisted living home in REST. “Which is really helpful,” he continues, “because it allows me to make something pan-American.” 

Morbidly obese writing instructor Charlie (Matthew Arkin) and his friend and caretaker Liz (Blake Lindsley) share a moment in this image from South Coast Repertory's West Coast premiere of THE WHALE (2013). Photo: Scott Brinegar.
Within these familiar and foreign landscapes, Hunter places characters from a particular walk of life. They’re Middle Americans: big-box store employees, nurses, a retired music professor, a former night watchman, a missionary. “I think the prevalence of upper middle class and upper class characters in our plays is surprising,” explains Hunter, “especially given the fact that the majority of America is not these people.” More specifically, Hunter is fascinated by the people living on the fringes of acceptability in these small towns. “The stories my dad told me about people from his hometown were just incredible,” he explained to David Rooney of The New York Times. “Like the guy who used to go to my grandpa’s grocery store: My dad had to deliver food to him, and his house was full of dead cats. You hear about somebody like that, and you think, ‘What is the story of that person?’” 

While a closeted gay teen in northern Idaho, Hunter attended a fundamentalist Christian high school and worked part-time at the local Walmart, which informs why so many of his plays center on characters living in quiet desperation, hungering for something greater. “Most of my plays are about seeking hope and meaning,” says Hunter, “and religion is the eternal well of hope and meaning for most Americans. It so shaped my childhood growing up in Idaho and going to a religious school, and so I see it in the larger cultural dialogue a lot. Mostly I write about it because people don't seem to want to talk about it.” Even when nonbelievers populate the plays, they still “point to the divine,” as Hunter says, whether it’s by way of Melville in THE WHALE or Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in REST. 

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre pitted actors Michael Laurence and Tasha Lawrence against each other as former lovers Bryan and QZ in its Off-Broadway premiere of THE FEW (2014). Photo: Joan Marcus.
“Hunter’s characters live in an Idaho where the divine smacks up against the banal, where their expansive worldviews create a profound disconnection to their quotidian surroundings,” writes Adam Greenfield, director of new play development at NYC’s Playwrights Horizons. “They’re as lost within Idaho’s suburban sprawl as they are within the cosmos, each one struggling with a fundamental part of his or her self — whether it’s religion, sexuality, ethics, or a cocktail of all these things — that doesn’t fit into their surroundings or daily lives.” 

American culture is certainly a part of the topography Hunter is mapping, but he’s not writing “issue” plays. Although he weaves topics like obesity, the Rapture, and gay conversion therapy into his scripts, as literary manager Douglas Langworthy of The Denver Center Theatre Company puts it, “they are never about these issues.” Rather, at the forefront of Hunter’s plays are his emotional and spiritual misfits — drawn with sensitivity — mirroring back to us their experience of Middle America today.  

John M. Baker is a dramaturg and the Artistic Leadership Fellow at The Lark, an international theatre laboratory based in New York. He is also the associate producer of Partial Comfort Productions in NYC, interim literary manager and dramaturg at Long Wharf Theatre and has formerly worked at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Versions of this article originally appeared in playbills for productions of REST at South Coast Repertory and Victory Gardens.