Samuel Hunter’s smart, subtle plays are best viewed up close—a perfect fit for this Chicago stage.
By the time Samuel Hunter introduces us to the dingy church basement in which his play The Harvest is set, the big news has already dropped: Four young missionaries from an evangelical congregation in Idaho Falls are heading to the Middle East, but only three of them will return. Josh (Raphael Diaz) plans to stay in the never-specified country they’re visiting to dedicate the rest of his life to mission work. The causes and consequences of this decision form the nervous system of Hunter’s profoundly poignant script, which receives an exquisite production from director Jonathan Berry.
Early on, we find out that Josh’s father has just died, a fact learned when his older sister, Michaela (Paloma Nozicka), comes back to town. She’s not there because of the death, but rather because she heard her brother is planning to uproot his life. It’s a quick glimpse into the family’s calamitous history. Diaz’s face tells the story, too: He plays Josh with a broken, vacant kindness, like a teddy bear left behind in a biker bar.
The more we learn about the family's history—and Josh’s life in Idaho Falls—the cloudier his intentions become. Is he running toward God or away from everything else? Later in the play, Josh tells the group supervisor, a perkily persistent Ava (Kiayla Ryann), that he’s waiting for a sign that he's on the right path. As devoted as he is, Josh is having trouble living on belief alone. He wants proof.
It’s another thing that separates Josh from his fellow missionaries: Though his counterparts are all too sure of what lies ahead, he craves certainty in the face of the unknown. Meanwhile, Josh’s best friend Tom (Collin Quinn Rice) starts to ponder a life without Josh—it’s not great, but he can’t fathom leaving Idaho Falls. A romantic connection between the two friends is alluded to but never consummated.
The other two missionaries, Denise (Kathryn Acosta) and Marcus (Taylor Del Vecchio), are married and treating this trip as their last big adventure before they start a family. At least, that’s how Denise sees it; Marcus is far less interested in adventure. The paternalistic way that he sidelines his wife is the closest that The Harvest comes to commentary, and it’s so deftly sketched that it blends right in. Berry has assembled a stellar cast for this production—just like he did for Hunter’s Pocatello back in 2015—but Del Vecchio deserves a nod for making Marcus exquisitely punchable.
In The Harvest, Hunter is writing as much about growing up as he is about having faith in God. And, really, the two aren't that different. Both biblical literalism and teenage certitude tend to falter when put up against the great unknown of being on your own. The play opens and closes with the characters praying so ecstatically that they speak in tongues. The words coming out of their mouths are nonsense, but it is precisely that act of speaking nonsensically that brings them closer to God. Sounds about right—or at least, not entirely wrong. Either way, it’s close enough.
Griffin Theatre Company at The Den. Written by Samuel Hunter. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With Kathryn Acosta, Patrick Blashill, Taylor Del Vecchio, Raphael Diaz, Paloma Nozicka, Collin Quinn Rice and Kiayla Ryann. Running time: 1hr, 45min; no intermission.