“The question is, can I generate empathy for a character we don’t really want to empathize with?” muses dramatist Samuel D. Hunter.
So far in the flowering career of this accomplished 32-year old playwright, the answer is yes.
But that empathy for unglamorous misfits and anti-heroes will no doubt be tested again in “A Great Wilderness,” a new Hunter drama commissioned by Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Rep’s world premiere of the work starts previews on Friday, Jan. 17.
Set in Hunter’s native state of Idaho, “A Great Wilderness” centers on Walt, an elder man (played by esteemed Seattle actor Michael Winters) who has dedicated his life to running a so-called “conversion therapy” camp for adolescents.
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Walt’s goal is to steer those attracted to the same sex away from the “sin” of homosexuality, toward a heterosexual adulthood. In his last case before retiring, Walt faces an angry youth who resists his efforts and makes him reconsider key events in his own past.
“In a Lifetime movie version, we’d see the kid struggle, break out of bondage and we’d all learn a lesson about homophobia,” suggests the thoughtful, pleasantly earnest Hunter, an openly gay New York resident.
“Walt would be a clear villain, and for 10 seconds we’d get to feel good, applaud, go home and forget about it. But what’s so difficult for a lot of gay teens in these situations is that people like Walt are coming from a place of love, compassion, affection, not violence and hate.”
The premiere’s director, Seattle Rep artistic staffer Braden Abraham, says he was attracted to the play’s focus on “big issues,” like faith and identity. “It’s about the price of living a lie, and to me that’s universal, the cost of that. You may want clear answers about the issues it raises. It doesn’t provide them. It lets the audience decide what to take away.”
“A Great Wilderness” arrives as the “ex-gay” movement of camps and counseling centers aimed at “praying away the gay” is losing momentum.
Recent surveys indicate a majority of Americans are accepting of homosexuality and gay marriage. In 2009, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution condemning conversion therapy as largely ineffective and potentially harmful, noting that prejudice and pressure to conform to heterosexual desires were the real dangers to gay people’s mental health.
And in 2013, the long-established Exodus International organization closed down, and its director apologized for the “pain and hurt” its conservative Christian religious approach to conversion therapy had caused.
Hunter says he doesn’t want to downplay persisting homophobia, nor continuing “ex-gay” efforts. “Some involve physical torture, which is horrifying. But the good-hearted people like Walt, who are pushing against a biological certainty — that is more interesting to me.”
The writer had challenges growing up gay in the small city of Moscow, Idaho, but says he benefited from accepting parents (they’re “Obama-loving Episcopalians”), and such cultural markers as “Ellen DeGeneres coming out when I was a teenager.”
His youthful interest in theater and plays led him to study playwriting at New York University, University of Iowa and then The Juilliard School, where famed dramatist Marsha Norman was a mentor.
In a style he labels “realism that hovers over the surface of realism,” he began penning probing, humanistic works such as “A Bright New Boise” and “The Whale.” Developed in part at Leavenworth’s Icicle Creek Theatre Festival, the latter script won Hunter a 2013 Drama Desk Award and a 2013 Lucille Lortel Award.
“The Whale” is also focused on an unlikely protagonist: a man weighing over 500 pounds. He’s confined to his apartment due to his corpulence as he tries to make peace with his past and reconcile with his daughter.
“Obesity is one of the last accepted prejudices,” notes Hunter. “Even so, I didn’t expect people to recoil from the character the way some did. By the end of the play, I hoped you would identify with him, despite the weight.”
Settled in New York with his dramaturge husband, John M. Baker, Hunter remains “very connected to the Northwest, even Seattle, where I only spent a little time as a kid.” His roots in Idaho go deep: His family still lives in Moscow, where his great-great grandfather was the city’s first postmaster.
Currently Hunter is working on two plays, “Lewiston,” also set in Idaho, and “Clarkston,” set in the town of the same name in Asotin County. “They’re very vaguely connected to the Lewis and Clark story,” he says.
As expected from Hunter, the plays will not be about glorifying action-adventure heroes. “ ‘Clarkston,’ ” he tells you, “takes place in a Costco store, on the shores of the Snake River.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org