By DALE GRUMMERT
For Inland 360
BOISE – The Boise Contemporary Theater is housed in a converted grain warehouse, built in the 1930s as part of an industrial subdivision that in recent decades has morphed into Boise’s downtown Cultural District. You enter the theater from the building’s old loading dock.
In other words, it’s a pretty good place to see a Sam Hunter play.
In particular, it’s a good place to see “Lewiston” and “Clarkston,” thematically linked works in which 21st-century characters grapple with local and personal history, in two forever-linked towns where history puts up a tougher fight than it does here in Idaho’s capital.
Hunter, 37, who in the past decade has become one of the most critically acclaimed playwrights in the country, lives in New York City but grew up in Moscow, 30 miles north of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. You can see traces of both these places – east and west, urban and rural – in his personable nature and fascinating observations about his craft. Although early in his career he delved into the sort of experimental drama you might see in downtown Manhattan, almost all his recent plays have been set in his home state and put a premium on character, realism and emotional honesty.
He seems to be exploring an Idaho of the mind, and he has reason to be bitter in this venture. Quite avowedly, he is not.
“Lewiston” and “Clarkston,” being staged in repertory here through March 9, are coming to the Boise theater straight from a successful off-off-Broadway run at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, in Greenwich Village, where they played for weeks and were anointed a New York Times Critics’ Pick. The wares of a Fourth of July fireworks stand, which form a significant portion of the props in “Lewiston,” were shipped to Boise for this production, which officially opened earlier this month with “Lewiston.” The first “Clarkston” show is Feb. 21.
Each play is set in the town of its title, near the Snake River that divides the two communities, and each includes a character with genealogical ties to Meriwether Lewis or William Clark. Hunter’s own roots in the area run deep – six generations in Moscow. Yet the specific locations of these dramas are less important than Hunter’s themes of past and future, angst and empathy.
The director of both plays is Lillian Meredith, who was associate director of the Rattlestick production. In New York, the works were shown back-to-back, before a few dozen viewers arranged in a circle around the actors. A meal was served at intermission, and the whole enchilada lasted 3½ hours. The Boise group is staging the plays separately – they were written to stand alone, as companion works – but is aiming for the same intimacy and precision, adapted to a different theater space.
“It felt like the same sculpture,” Hunter said last week, a day after the first of four preview shows of “Lewiston” opened before a packed house at the 230-seat theater, “but it had been rotated 30 degrees. All of a sudden I’m seeing all these new things about it, which is the sort of joy of playwriting.”
The sculpture analogy is typical of Hunter, whose descriptions of the creative process are nuanced and thought-provoking. So are his plays.
“There is something very specific about the intimate, gentle dramas that he’s writing right now that feel unique to me in American theater,” said BCT founding artistic director Matthew Cameron Clark, who has staged world premieres of two other Hunter plays here. “He has a particular knack for introducing characters at the beginning of a play that you might not necessarily connect with – and by the end of the play you’re rooting for them. Really beautiful demonstration of the empathic power of theater.”
If Hunter’s increasing interest in empathy, in challenging preconceived notions, has coincided with his increasing preoccupation with Idaho, this probably isn’t coincidental.
Beginning in seventh grade, he spent 4½ years attending a private school, Logos, which is affiliated with the evangelical, polarizing Moscow church that calls itself Christ Church. His Episcopalian family had no ties to the church, and his enrollment at the school predated most of the civic storms involving Christ Church that would play out in coming years.
The school’s lure in this case was its classical approach to education. Its drawback, it turned out, was the church’s unequivocal views on sexual orientation. By the age of 12, Hunter secretly knew he was gay.
During a 30-minute interview at BCT, hours before the second preview of “Lewiston,” Hunter said it took him years to come to terms with that experience. In some ways, he’s still unpacking it. Yet he talks of the subject with the same analytical, almost curious tone that he assumes when discussing other aspects of his life.
“As far as an education, it was rigorous,” he said of Logos. “I was reading things that I like to read. I was studying Latin, which I really enjoyed. That was all a very long time ago, 20 years ago now. I think what I’ve taken – and it’s something that I’ve tried to put in my plays – is a lack of judgment about people who believe things differently than you. That doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everybody or not state our point of view. But maybe if I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t be writing plays that seek to cross a political or religious divide between people, and get at something more basic and human.”
He wound up leaving Logos midway through his junior year and transferring to Moscow High School, where he resolved to be frank about his orientation. He found that other students were disarmed by this. As a senior he was voted student-body president.
His subsequent departure from the area was swift: He enrolled at New York University at age 17. Distance gave James Joyce a fresh perspective on Dublin, and perhaps it’s done the same for Hunter’s view of Idaho. But Joyce never returned to his home. Hunter returns often. He still has a taste for “wide-open spaces and rivers and palisades,” he said. Christianity, too, continues to exert a pull on him, though in a more personal way than before.
Samuel D. Hunter’s bio gives a particular impression of resolve. He studied theater at NYU, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and Juilliard. He has penned numerous plays, 14 of which have been produced. He won a 2011 Obie Award for the the best-written off-Broadway play, “A Bright New Boise,” and three years later was stunned to learn he’d landed an unsolicited $625,000 fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, otherwise known as a “Genius Grant.” Even his written dialogue, with its explicit pauses and overlaps, expresses a sense of purpose.
“When I first read the script,” Tom Ford, one of the three actors in the Boise production of “Lewiston,” said a few hours before a preview show, “it felt a little controlling. But it’s really not. It’s actually a real tool for the actor. He’s actually giving you a gift, once you start investing in that.”
Hunter’s most well-known work is “The Whale,” about a mortally obese man trying to reconnect with a daughter he hasn’t seen in 15 years. Written in 2008-09, it came so effortlessly that its quiet tone and emphasis on salvation through human connection deeply influenced his subsequent work, including “Lewiston” and “Clarkston.” In a sense, he said, he accidentally learned he was a humanist – that he needed to stop “muscling” his writer’s voice and start inviting audiences to “honestly engage with characters that they may not see eye-to-eye with.”
Among the admirers of this approach is his father, Jay Hunter, an emergency-room physician at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston.
“When I start feeling particularly nasty about (President Donald) Trump and right-wing Republicans,” Jay Hunter said in the lobby of the BCT, after watching a “Lewiston” preview, “I start thinking, ‘You know, I should be more like Sam. Maybe I should look at their point of view.’ There are people I work with who are very nice and are big Trump supporters. It’s important for me to see their point of view, why they think the way they do. Most of Sam’s plays are like that. They treat people with more of an understanding.”
For all their unflinching truth-seeking, Hunter’s plays also lean toward a sense of hope, even optimism. So does his personal life, he says, and that’s not likely to change in the near future.
He and his husband, dramaturge John Baker, adopted a daughter last year, Frances, now 16 months old. The three of them live in Inwood, a quiet neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan. One of its prime features is Inwood Hill Park, whose nearly 200 acres include the largest remaining forest land in Manhattan.
Sam Hunter, Idahoan, goes jogging there every morning.
Boise notables (as they relate to Sam Hunter’s new plays ‘Lewiston’ and ‘Clarkston’)
Samuel Hunter’s plays “Lewiston” and Clarkston” are being staged at the Boise Contemporary Theater, which lies in the heart of Boise’s Cultural District.
Nearby, you’ll find the Esther Simplot Center for the Performing Arts, the Boise Public Main Library and the Julia Davis Cultural Park, featuring the Boise Art Museum. A few blocks away is the Basque Museum and Culture Center, which celebrates a sometimes overlooked aspect of the city’s heritage.
If you’re traveling to Boise, here are some foodie stops to consider in connection with Samuel Hunter’s works.
One of the sponsors of Boise Contemporary Theater, the Red Feather Lounge/Bittercreek Alehouse (246 N. 8th St.), has concocted cocktails to coincide with the theater’s productions of two plays by Idaho-bred playwright Sam Hunter. The ingredients of “Lewiston” include rose-hip hibiscus, sage leaves, gin, lemon and Campari. Not to be outdone, “Clarkston” is made with prickly pear, Spanish vermouth and Champagne. What do these ingredients have to do with their namesake towns? Not much. But they’re awfully tasty.
Note: These drinks aren’t on the menu. You have to ask for them.
l When Sam Hunter was a youngster in Moscow, he and his family visited relatives in Boise and happened to dine at that city’s version of the Olive Garden Italian Kitchen (320 N. Milwaukee St.). The boy was enchanted. Years later, remembering that experience, he set his play “Pocatello” in an Olive Garden in the city of the title.
How young was he during that visit to Boise? “Young enough that I ordered milk with my meal,” he said. “One of the reasons I loved the Olive Garden back then is they had unlimited refills on milk.”
Neither he nor we can vouch for the current milk policies or general wonderfulness of that restaurant.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Samuel D. Hunter’s plays “Lewiston” and “Clarkston”
WHEN: Through March 9
WHERE: Boise Contemporary Theater, 842 Fulton St., Boise
COST: $18 to $38, bctheater.org