Playwright Samuel B. Hunter was never a fundamentalist Christian, but his boyhood experience at a Christian school was the inspiration for his new play, "A Great Wilderness."
Set in Hunter's native Idaho, "A Great Wilderness" is about a man named Walt. He's spent most of his life in a cabin in the woods, where he attempts to counsel gay teenagers out of their homosexuality. Encroaching dementia has forced Walt into retirement, but not before he brings in one last boy to be counseled.
Hunter went to a Christian school, where he "tried on fundamentalist Christianity like a coat." Ultimately, it was a bad fit for a boy who was raised, he says, by "garden-variety Episcopalians." Hunter didn't adopt the religious tenets, but he did absorb a working knowledge of what it means to be a person who lives by strict religious codes. Those codes are what motivates the character of Walt.
Seattle Repertory Theater commissioned the award-winning playwright as part of its New Plays program. There were no guidelines to the commission, but Hunter wanted to explore how orthodox religious beliefs set parameters for people. In this case, Walt harbors several deep secrets that only emerge as his mental state deteriorates.
Neither Walt nor the play's other main characters are wholly good or bad. "If this was a Lifetime (television) story, Walt would be the antagonist," Hunter explains. Instead, the audience is faced with somebody who pushes liberal assumptions about right and wrong.
Hunter admits that many audiences find plays like "A Great Wilderness" difficult to watch. Even his own mother prefers happy stories, he says.
But for Hunter, theater is as much about catharsis as it is about storytelling. Writing "A Great Wilderness" helped him explore questions he had about Christian orthodoxy and about the now-debunked gay conversion therapy programs like Exodus International. "I can leave the ideas on the page," he says, rather than act on them.
Hunter believes theater transcends the personal satisfaction of the playwright or the actors. It's in the communal act of watching a play that we can experience the lives of those people we might never meet. And, presumably, we can understand their real-life counterparts a little better.