Idaho’s Sam Hunter is blossoming into a great American playwright

doland@idahostatesman.comFebruary 22, 2014 

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In 2011, Sam Hunter created two world premieres for Boise Contemporary Theater. This year, four of Hunter’s plays will receive premieres at theaters across the country.

DARIN OSWALD — Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman Buy Photo

  • Meet two other Idahoans making their names in theater

    IRA AMYX

    It took a few years for Ira Amyx to grow into himself as a character actor, but he is now hitting his stride. “The older I get, the better it gets,” Amyx says. “I have an older soul. My personality fits these characters I’m now old enough to play.”

    Amyx grew up in the Treasure Valley, the grandson of a former Boise mayor, the late Jay Amyx. He took drama from Fool Squad co-founder Tom Willmorth at Vallivue High, earned an undergraduate theater degree from Boise State University and worked with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival before earning a graduate degree at Indiana University Bloomington. After a five years in New York City, Amyx, 36, landed in Chicago where his career is beginning to flourish both on and off stage.

    “Chicago is the land of opportunity for me,” he says. “I love this town.”

    In 2010, Amyx co-produced Willmorth’s “King Phycus,” a wacky Shakespearean send up, with Strange Tree Group. The production won Best Ensemble at the non-Equity Jeff Awards and earned Willmorth a nomination for the script. (The Joseph Jefferson Awards are Chicago’s Tonys.)

    That same year, Amyx co-founded Hero Solutions, a company that builds sets and effects for television, film and theater. He’s done everything from local commercials to work on the new “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” It’s been the economic mainstay that allowed him to build his acting career, he says.

    He is a member of Seanachai Theatre Co. (pronounced “shawn-a-key,” seanachai is Gaelic for storyteller). He joined that company in 2011 for Gerard Stembridge’s “That Was Then” and received an Equity Jeff Award nomination. Last year, Amyx received critical praise for his performance in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer.” Last month, Amyx was cast in Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Mona Mansour’s “The Way West,” and in an episode of the Showtime series “Shameless,” starring William H. Macy.

    SALLY EAMES

    Boise’s Sally Eames also landed in Chicago’s acting world. Eames discovered her love of acting in Boise’s strong community theater scene. She graduated from Borah High, earned her bachelor’s in theater at Boise State and headed for Portland the day after graduation to pursue acting. In 2003, she returned to her home state to earn a master’s in theater at the University of Idaho, and stayed a few years to teach before moving to Chicago in 2009. “I think Chicago is the best theater city in the country,” Eames says. “The actors are so full of heart.”

    Eames started in Chicago as a dialect coach at Eclipse Theatre. She was invited to join the company in 2011. Last year, Eames received a national accolade for her performance in Eclipse’s “Woman in Mind,” a dark comedy by Alan Ayckbourn about a brain-damaged woman who mistakes her loving fantasy family for the real thing.

    The Wall Street Journal’s national theater critic Terry Teachout picked her as his best performance in a play: “Sally Eames was hauntingly true to life,” he wrote.

    “When I read it, it took about 20 minutes for me to realize he meant me,” Eames says.

    Though it’s too soon to tell if it will impact her acting career, it is quite an honor, she says. Eames also is finding a way to put her theater talents into real-life application by becoming a certified story-based life coach. “My focus has shifted from thinking of myself as a professional actor to being a professional storyteller. When I work with people I’m coaching, we look at the stories they are telling, the ones they’re not and what stories they want to tell.”

The back of a dark theater is an increasingly comfortable confine for Sam Hunter. Notepad in hand, it’s 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 Theatre’s 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 Rep’s artistic director Jerry Manning as part of the theater’s New Play program. It is one of several commissions Hunter received from various theaters this year.

Like most of Hunter’s plays, “A Great Wilderness” is set in Idaho. Though there is no actual dot on the map given, Coeur d’Alene and Boise are both referenced throughout the play. But Idaho is more than a location for Hunter. It’s a state of mind and a reflection of his sensibility and expression of identity.

“I certainly don’t sit down and say, ‘What can I write about Idaho today?’” Hunter says. “But I keep writing plays set in Idaho, although I don’t 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, Hunter’s voice out of Idaho — like Sam Shepard’s or August Wilson’s — reflects something about the American West, specifically the Northwest. And right now, it’s resonating nationally.

“I love that he writes about Idaho and I’m so happy to have this play premiering here in the Northwest, where Sam’s voice is amplified,” Manning says. “It has a clear sense of regionality and that’s 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 can’t remember what Daniel said as he left.

Other counselors arrive, Daniel’s 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.

It’s 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.”

That’s 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 O’Neill National Playwriting Festival.

“Being from the Pacific Northwest myself, I have an affinity for the way Sam weaves the West into his work — how it’s 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 Hunter’s 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 University’s Tisch School of the Arts. To Hunter’s surprise, he was accepted to the playwriting program. Hunter graduated from Tisch and pursued a graduate degree from the University of Iowa’s Playwrights’ Workshop. That’s 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.

“It’s impossible to predict what’s 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 Hunter’s “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 Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, which was the last production of the play that Hunter was involved in. Now, it has moved into American theatrical canon.

“I’ve 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 Rep’s 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. There’s a clear beginning, middle and end and there are no extraneous scenes or wasted words. That’s 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,” Walt’s character isn’t the villain for running conversion therapy; he’s 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 who’s 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 he’s 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. “They’re unusual and not stereotypical and they exist in real situations. He works to show a range of feeling. It’s the kind of well-rounded characters actors live for. It’s something you can really bite down on.”

Part of the secret is Hunter’s ear for dialogue, he says.

“It’s very hard to learn because it’s so real. He’s pinpoint accurate in how people talk — they start sentences and double back, and patch up a thought,” he says. “It’s been amazing to work on this with him in the room. He’s wonderfully generous and just a dream.”

Hunter’s 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.

They’re titled “Lewiston” and “Clarkston” and set in the towns of the same name. They don’t 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.

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