The back of a dark theater is an increasingly comfortable confine for Sam Hunter. Notepad in hand, its from this refuge that he watches the worlds he creates in his head take shape, brought to life through the work of a community of theater artists, actors and technicians.
And these days, this Obie and Drama Desk award winner can be found at an increasing number of nationally known regional theaters, from The Old Globe in San Diego to Playwrights Horizons in New York City to South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., as he quietly brings with him a voice from his home state of Idaho.
Last month, the 32-year-old playwright set up at the back of the packed house at Seattle Repertory Theatres Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre, affectionately called the Leo K.
Nearby, director Braden Abraham and the design team were are all on hand to watch the very first performance of A Great Wilderness.
The play is a commission from Seattle Reps artistic director Jerry Manning as part of the theaters New Play program. It is one of several commissions Hunter received from various theaters this year.
Like most of Hunters plays, A Great Wilderness is set in Idaho. Though there is no actual dot on the map given, Coeur dAlene and Boise are both referenced throughout the play. But Idaho is more than a location for Hunter. Its a state of mind and a reflection of his sensibility and expression of identity.
I certainly dont sit down and say, What can I write about Idaho today? Hunter says. But I keep writing plays set in Idaho, although I dont think there is anything quintessentially Idahoan about them. Of course, I bring who I am to the work, and Idaho is a big part of who I am, both consciously and subconsciously.
Either way, Hunters voice out of Idaho like Sam Shepards or August Wilsons reflects something about the American West, specifically the Northwest. And right now, its resonating nationally.
I love that he writes about Idaho and Im so happy to have this play premiering here in the Northwest, where Sams voice is amplified, Manning says. It has a clear sense of regionality and thats beautiful.
A Great Wilderness takes place inside a large A-frame cabin somewhere in the mountains beautifully rendered on the Leo K stage, punctuated by a rich soundscape of forest birds and mountain breezes.
The dramatic tension starts as the characters enter the cabin Walt (Michael Winters) is an older man who runs a camp where he counsels teenage boys out of their homosexuality, and Daniel (Jack Taylor) is his last client before retiring.
Things go wrong when Daniel disappears. Walt gets confused and cant remember what Daniel said as he left.
Other counselors arrive, Daniels mother shows up after receiving a cryptic text from her son, a forest ranger stops by to help with the search, and the drama escalates when lightning sparks a forest fire.
Its a mystery to be solved, tinged with the fear that something terrible has happened, yet tempered with real human moments that add humor and pathos to the characters. But what really follows is an exploration of purpose and motive, faith and trust that nimbly moves from naturalistic to mythical.
The play presents itself like a classic American drama, and though it stays rooted in a realistic terrain, it gets fuzzy around the edges with some mystical and spiritual elements, Hunter says. Then the structure fractures. And an almost biblical quality hovers over everything.
Thats helped on stage with beautiful effects for the fire.
The deeper mythical tensions are what drew Abraham to the project. He worked closely with Hunter over the past year to create and hone it through serveral workshops at national festivals, such as the Eugene ONeill National Playwriting Festival.
Being from the Pacific Northwest myself, I have an affinity for the way Sam weaves the West into his work how its attached to revelation and religion and this sense of being able to start over and build something new, to be able to leave your life behind, and the profound loneliness that follows, Abraham says.
That feeling of loneliness is part of Hunters complex relationship with Moscow, where he grew up with the urge to leave and the desire to stay.
Hunter planned to go to the University of Idaho, but also sent an application to New York Universitys Tisch School of the Arts. To Hunters surprise, he was accepted to the playwriting program. Hunter graduated from Tisch and pursued a graduate degree from the University of Iowas Playwrights Workshop. Thats where he found his voice, he says, and then he honed it through a fellowship at The Juilliard School.
Idaho is where he came to terms with his sexuality, which was a deeply profound experience. That was me desperately trying to negotiate something about myself with the rest of the world, he says. That set a tone for me.
Hunter is openly gay, and many of his plays contain gay characters. But Hunter is not simply a gay playwright, he says.
All his characters fold together into a complex community in which people get close to the fringe as they navigate life though their particular and sometimes extreme worldview.
Over the past few years, Hunter has eased onto the national radar. His first breakthrough came with A Bright New Boise, a play set in the Boise Hobby Lobby store where a father who is a member of an end-of-days cult tries to reconnect with his estranged son. The play was a surprise hit in the 2010 off-Broadway theater season and won Hunter an Obie Award, the off-Broadway version of the Tony.
In 2011, Hunter premiered two plays at Boise Contemporary Theater Norway, about a father who leads a conservative Christian sect and tries to understand why his son killed himself by lying down in a frozen Wal-Mart parking lot, and A Permanent Image, a family drama commissioned by BCT about siblings who return home for Christmas to find that their father has died and their mother has painted everything in the house couch and all white.
His next breakthrough came with The Whale, a play that premiered at the Denver Center in 2012 and propelled him even further into the spotlight.
Its impossible to predict whats going to be successful, he says. The plays you never expect to do anything sometimes get legs. Who knew it would be a play about a morbidly obese man dying over the course of an hour-and-50-minute intermissionless play?
It won him a Drama Desk Special award given to recognize excellence and significant contributions to the theater for Hunters empathic and indelible The Whale (that) affirms his arrival as a distinguished dramatist who depicts the human condition, the award read.
The play has received productions at Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Rep and Chicagos Victory Gardens Theater, which was the last production of the play that Hunter was involved in. Now, it has moved into American theatrical canon.
Ive finally let that play go, he says. A play is never done, but at some point it has to live on its own, warts and all. Every play is flawed. There is no such thing as a perfect play.
Seattle Reps Manning discovered Hunter when he read A Bright New Boise. From that play he could tell Hunter is a remarkable talent.
I read a lot of plays, Manning says. The first thing that struck me about Sam is his unquestioned command of dramatic structure. Theres a clear beginning, middle and end and there are no extraneous scenes or wasted words. Thats rare to find in such a young playwright.
Having that strong architecture underlying his structure allows Hunter to create vivid and accessible characters who transcend our expectations.
In Wilderness, Walts character isnt the villain for running conversion therapy; hes sincerely struggling to do the right thing from his point of view.
If he were clearly the villain, that would be the Lifetime movie version, Hunter says. This is an American tragedy about a man whos built his entire life on a lie. About the ripple effects of that lie, and how it destroyed him and his family, and now that hes sliding into dementia at the end of his life, he looks back and is horrified.
Tackling a Hunter play for the first time was an interesting challenge, says actor Michael Winters, who plays Walt.
He writes fabulous parts, Winters says. Theyre unusual and not stereotypical and they exist in real situations. He works to show a range of feeling. Its the kind of well-rounded characters actors live for. Its something you can really bite down on.
Part of the secret is Hunters ear for dialogue, he says.
Its very hard to learn because its so real. Hes pinpoint accurate in how people talk they start sentences and double back, and patch up a thought, he says. Its been amazing to work on this with him in the room. Hes wonderfully generous and just a dream.
Hunters next project is the honing of two plays written for Arena Stage in the other Washington Washington, D.C., where Hunter was its playwright in residence last year.
Theyre titled Lewiston and Clarkston and set in the towns of the same name. They dont share a setting or characters, but are connected thematically in that they both are metaphors for the legacy of Lewis and Clark, he says.
Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at Blogs.IdahoStatesman.com.