|Playwright Sam Hunter |
Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
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.|
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.|
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.