How the everyday and the sacred coexist in Samuel D. Hunter’s plays
The human mind finds ways of understanding that can seem incomprehensible. We use our creativity and intellect to make the unknown knowable, and to share what is larger than ourselves. We seek out the extraordinary moments and share what we saw, how we felt and how we were changed. Such moments are found in different places for everyone: in churches lit with candles, in the quiet of prayer or meditation, in the magnificence of nature, in the simplicity of logic.
At its best, theater can be both an expression of an extraordinary moment shared by one human mind, and an experience of an extraordinary moment shared by those watching. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter has a gift for finding extraordinary moments in the most unlikely places.
“The times I most think about God are when I’m on the subway,” he confessed in an interview just before The Whale’s New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2012. “Not when I’m on a mountaintop. When I’m on a mountaintop… I think about worldly things, I think about objects, I think about dirt, I think about landscape, I think about planets. When I’m in a really amazing church, I do think about God, but mostly I’m marveling at the religion, not the God. I’m marveling at the organization of it, the human part of it, the physical rather than the metaphysical.”
So, if not in the glory of nature or a church, where does Sam Hunter find the divine? “I find when I worked at Walmart and was in the break room, and when I’m on the subway, and when I’m walking down Tenth Avenue, or when I’m home in Idaho and in a Walmart, which seems like such an inconsequential place in what the nation might consider an inconsequential town – then I look to the divine much more. You know what I mean?”
Hunter has a keen ability to find the extraordinary in the everyday lives of ordinary (but quite complicated) people, like those he knew in the small Idaho town where he was born and raised. He attended fundamentalist schools – for the education not the dogma – and learned Latin and logic and the ability to process what he was being taught and come to his own conclusions. Hunter went on to study writing at NYU, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and Julliard, and now lives in New York with his husband.
The majority of the plays Hunter writes are set somewhere in Idaho, which is by coincidence rather than by design. A small town quality is captured in the characters he writes about. They are employees at a craft store, young men working at Costco, an older woman selling fireworks by the side of the road, a waiter at a chain Italian restaurant. The population of Hunter’s plays are regular people doing their best, searching for meaning and order in their small corner of the world.
While the characters in Hunter’s plays are ordinary, it is easy to distance ourselves from them, the same way we look past the strange faces on the subway or choose not to see an overweight person moving uncomfortably past us in the grocery store. “I’m interested in characters who aren’t immediately identifiable,” said Hunter, “People we have preconceived notions about, maybe even judgments. Then the play is the process of recognizing the character as human, empathizing with them, and then, hopefully, understanding them.”
Sam Hunter has a breathtaking ability to transform the banal into the divine through his writing, to take an ordinary moment and lift it through story to a knowable beauty. Through his plays, we see the everyday elevated through characters transformed, and we are able to share an extraordinary moment together.