His own private
(& public) Idaho
by Richard Dodds
The playwright was on the telephone from Moscow. But no international phone rates were involved. Samuel D. Hunter was visiting family in his hometown of Moscow, Idaho, which he described as "a blue pocket in a red state." Often his plays are set in the Potato State, some featuring central gay characters, while others seek empathy for fundamentalist Christians who fervently condemn homosexuality. It's a dichotomy that the gay playwright doesn't see as a contradiction, but he has heard a few voices with opposing opinions.
In his newest play, The Great Wilderness, now in rehearsals at Seattle Rep, the central character has spent a lifetime trying to convert gays into heterosexuals. "He's at the end of his life, taking stock of everything, including the damage he has done to his family," Hunter said. "But the play really doesn't sit in judgment of him. When we did readings of the play, there were several members of the gay community who were a little bit outraged because it was not judgmental enough. And just the other day I was at auditions, and some prominent member of the gay community was like, why should I care about this character? This is the response I gave him: Empathy is always a good thing."
The Great Wilderness will have its world premiere in January in Seattle, but Bay Area audiences will have their first chance to experience this rising playwright when A Bright New Boise opens Nov. 14 at the Aurora Theatre. Boise is often referred to as Hunter's "breakout play," starting off with a well-reviewed New York production in 2010, and spreading rapidly through the country.
While there is a character that Hunter subtly indicates is gay, the playwright says whether or not audiences catch the reference is not a critical issue. Instead, he said, the emotional trajectory of that character's father is at the heart of the play. Will is an evangelical Christian who has recently fled to Boise following a tragic scandal at his rural church, and now works at a big-box crafts store where he tries to bond with a son long ago given up for adoption. Life has become so dismal for Will that his only prayer is a quick arrival of the Rapture's end times. Again, empathy is what the playwright hopes to evoke, along with humor, until darker themes come to dominate.
"I spent a lot of years writing about religion from a more distant place where the protagonist was somebody who did not hold these religious beliefs and was encountering them in their lives," Hunter said. "It took me awhile to come around to the fact that the perspective of the religious person is not one we've seen before. It's really interesting watching people with a literal belief in the Bible or any book negotiate that with living in 2013. I think that's where the dramatic tension comes from."
A sixth-generation Idahoan, Hunter, 32, actually grew up in a liberal Episcopalian home. But for academic rather than religious reasons, he attended a fundamentalist Christian high school. "One of my friends outed me to the administration," he said, and he left the school to finish his senior year at the local public school. "But it wasn't this binary thing where they found out I was gay and the next day I was expelled. The situations were incredibly thorny and complicated and tragic, and I don't like to get too specific. It just became very apparent that I needed to leave, so the decision was my own."
All of his plays, he says, have autobiographical components, though he avoids lifting literally from his life. "I think the main character is always locking into some emotional struggle that I've had in certain ways," Hunter said, "But I can't imagine being fettered by writing about something that specifically happened to me. It would seem so myopic."
Hunter attended NYU after high school, and has pretty much made New York his home ever since with his husband and dramaturge John M. Baker. But his dramatic heart is continually drawn back to Idaho. "Going to that fundamentalist school presented a really interesting conflict for me early on, the cognitive differences between all these values I held and the things I was being taught," he said. "And when homosexuality entered that conflict, it became even more intense. It was a very formative experience."
Now he sees a deadlocked society in which one side accuses the other of degeneracy while that side returns with charges that literal scriptural beliefs border on insanity. "I think a lot of LGBT people think, well, the other side is on the decline so we just have to let them die out," Hunter said. "That may be true, but I think there's a greater understanding that can be achieved not by saying, oh, their homophobia is illegitimate, but by maybe introducing the slightly controversial idea that their views come from a deeply held belief very dear to them. It's never a bad thing for us to understand what that means."
Tickets and info on A Bright New Boise, running through Dec. 8, are available at auroratheatre.org.