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Samuel D. Hunter
Photograph: Courtesy Zack DeZon

Samuel D. Hunter's achey-breaky heartland

The Idaho native and author of The Whale lovingly portrays Midwest folk at the margins.

By Helen Shaw

Samuel D. Hunter has, in just a couple of productions, established himself as one of New York’s best neorealistic playwrights. The field has deepened in recent years, with so-old-it’s-new-again naturalists Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation) and Amy Herzog (4000 Miles) reclaiming structurally confident realism. The hallmark of all their work is balance, which makes it all the more impressive that Hunter orients his work around profoundly destabilizing characters. A disgraced Christian cult member, an obese shut-in, a counselor at a camp for “deprogramming” gay teens—these are just the sorts of men who would normally upset a work, sending it into right-wing-bashing hysteria.

Yet Hunter’s wildly successful (and Obie-winning) comic drama A Bright New Boise painted in delicate strokes, layering secret relationships under shifting religious sympathies to create a lovely interplay of light and shade. Set in a Hobby Lobby break room—a place not known for its mysteries—Boise followed a man torn between his son and his faith. In The Whale (now at Playwrights Horizons), Hunter uses similar tools. Again we have a man isolated (Shuler Hensley plays the  dying, 600-pound Charlie, lonely in his mountain of flesh); again there is a child whose filial connection is gossamer-thin. We are even back in Idaho (Moscow, Idaho, Hunter’s hometown), and yet the author’s continuing project to “reintroduce empathy” feels in no way redundant.

A sense of embrace permeates his approach—when Hunter talks about a character, he emphasizes the description with air hugs; when he talks about his dramaturgy he clasps his hands together. Tall and beaming and open and incredibly Midwestern, Hunter seems at peace with his decision to be delightedly uncynical (and nonjudgmental) in his work. At 17, he left Idaho for New York, applying to NYU on a whim that unexpectedly paid off. He was leaving behind a town where his family had lived since its founding. He came out of the closet, got on a plane and showed up ready for “the boyfriend I thought they would be handing out at the airport.”

Unexpectedly, this is when his deepest sense of alienation began. Going to a fundamentalist school in Idaho, struggling between his spirituality and a church with little room for gay men—those things he took in stride. But in his New York dorm, he began to feel truly alone. Even his aesthetic felt out of place.

“When I was writing in college,” admits Hunter, “I thought I wanted to be Richard Foreman; I wanted theater that exploded theater. And experimental downtown theater is still my favorite. But the way my mind works , it doesn’t start with form; it starts with content. I was trying to shoehorn what I wanted to write into abstraction, and I was just winding up with puddles.” It took him awhile to fall back in love with things like “plot,” and only later did he come to think of conventional structure as “a wonderful friend.” He jokes, “I had to stop flogging myself for liking unit sets!”

Another distinctly unfashionable element? Hunter’s hard-won emphasis on spirituality, empathy and love. He went to Iowa for grad school and again, he says, “I felt alone. But then I met my now-husband there in my second year, and—this is the first time I’ve articulated this—that’s when the plays really started to be about people on the fringes, about isolation, but also connection.”

The playwright inevitably refers to “getting out of my own way”—allowing him to write heartfelt, content-driven pieces, or to set everything in his home state. And Idaho is everywhere. His next two pieces will also be set there (one off an interstate highway, the other in the woods at a gay-reform camp), but Hunter claims, “The more that I do this, the less regional the plays become. I construct a different kind of Idaho, one that has only a small correlation with the place that I grew up.” The setting introduces a nearly palpable sense of distance (both in terms of landscape and the New York theatergoer’s experience), but it also permits Hunter to delve more deeply into himself.

Only when something seems too close for comfort will Hunter take it up: “When my mind goes, ‘Don’t write about that part of yourself!’ I know I have to write it,” says Hunter. “It’s just hard to go see Shuler—so perfectly me—die five times a weekend.”

For more information and tickets to The Whale.


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