Playwright Samuel D. Hunter of The Whale and A Permanent Image

The Idaho-born, New York–based playwright is eager to break into the Chicago scene.

Photograph: John Baker
Samuel D. Hunter

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter has made a home for himself among New York’s Off Broadway and Off-Off theaters. Yet he still sets all of his plays in his home state of Idaho.

In a recent conversation at Victory Gardens Theater, where a production of his The Whale is in rehearsal, Hunter hesitates when asked why his work remains so explicitly tied to the Gem State.

“Every play, in a way, is trying to answer that question of why I keep getting drawn back to it,” he eventually offers, his eyes searching behind distinctive, round glasses. “I never thought, I’m gonna be the Idaho playwright!”

The writer’s roots are undeniably deep; his family’s history in his home town of Moscow, Idaho, goes back six generations. Tall, warm and open, Hunter, 31, describes coming to theater via other literary forms, first as a student at a fundamentalist Christian high school. “They used to do this thing where they would read literature to us that was secular-worldly. Like, I have this very pristine memory of our English teacher reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land out loud to us, kind of as an example of, like, ‘Look what the godless poets write, they don’t use verse, they don’t rhyme,’ ” Hunter recalls. “And everybody would kind of chuckle at it because it was so ridiculous, but secretly I really loved it.”

As a closeted teen, Hunter latched onto the work of Allen Ginsberg—“my patron saint in high school,” he says, “but it had to be in secret”—and began writing. He tried his hand at plays because he liked writing dialogue for the same reasons free verse appealed: “It could be imperfect, spraying in many directions from a multiplicity of perspectives. It felt more like orchestration almost than writing.” At 17, he applied for NYU’s playwriting program almost on a whim and moved across the country.

“A lot of gay kids in a town like I grew up in would tell the story, like, ‘I ran screaming from Idaho the moment I could!’ ” he says. “But I really didn’t feel like that. In a weird way, I feel like I identify with Idaho more than New York, even though New York has become my adult home.”

Despite the poetic background, Hunter’s plays are largely marked by a stark realism, along with a deep sense of empathy for his small-town characters. He has two productions opening in Chicago this month. LiveWire Chicago Theatre (which staged his A Bright New Boise in 2011) is opening A Permanent Image, about an estranged family reuniting for its patriarch’s funeral. Meanwhile, The Whale, about a lonely 600-pound shut-in, goes up at Victory Gardens, where Hunter recently became one of the theater’s new generation of ensemble playwrights.

“I want to be in conversation with the theater community here,” Hunter says of that appointment, recalling road-tripping from grad school in Iowa to see plays at Steppenwolf with his now-husband. “I’m very well aware that I’m a carpetbagger, but it’s a community and a city that’ve excited me for so long, I really want to get my stuff out here. In New York, Idaho is so exotic. Here, there’s just an awareness of America that’s a little different.”

A Permanent Image previews Thursday 4 and opens Saturday 6 at the DCASE Storefront Theater. The Whale previews Friday 5 and opens April 15 at Victory Gardens.

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