Samuel D. Hunter: Playwright of spiritual longing, now a MacArthur ‘Genius’ fellow

Theater Critic

Don’t look now, but a positive trend seems to be developing: A bumper crop of talented American playwrights more interested in artistic expression than commercial validation is being recognized with the most prestigious awards and lucrative fellowships available.

Yes, that’s right, playwrights, not screenwriters-in-the-making, not stage dabblers until HBO comes a-calling, but dramatists through and through. Best of all, they’re not being asked to wait until they’re mid-career, broke and demoralized by this country’s neglect of its artists.

The latest in this delightful trend is Samuel D. Hunter, who is one of this year’s MacArthur “genius” fellows. Last year, Tarell Alvin McCraney was selected for this prosperous honor, one that gives artists and intellectuals something only a whole lot of money can buy: unfettered time to think and create.

And who would have thought that the Pulitzer Prize board, usually so reluctant to acknowledge playwrights before they’ve been lionized everywhere else, would have chosen Annie Baker’s “The Flick” for this year’s drama prize?

We expect the Herb Albert Award in the Arts to honor trailblazers. And this year’s recipient in theater, Annie Dorsen, is an inspired choice. But the Broadway-besotted Pulitzer crowd?


If awards committees continue to show such good taste, I might have to ditch my old diatribe about just how entrenched conservative attitudes toward the theater run even among intellectuals.

Hunter, New York-based but originally from the American West, has been casting his eye on the spiritual malaise of this nation. His plays, frequently set in Idaho against the backdrop of majestic mountain ranges and in towns dominated by fast food restaurants, chain stores and churches, grapple with related subjects that were fundamental to Greek tragedy: the limitation of humanity’s vision, the place of religion in society and the desperate longing for relief from the lonely uncertainty of life.

Of course Hunter is very much a contemporary writer, keenly interested in how these themes manifest themselves psychologically, in everyday behavior. He proceeds not with a moral point but through observation of the way his characters either defend their bunkered existences or attempt to reach beyond them -- or more commonly, some combination of the two.

Take Charlie, the morbidly obese protagonist from “The Whale” who has been literally eating himself to death since his lover, a casualty of religious homophobia, passed away. An online writing instructor, Charlie no longer leaves his apartment -- something that is almost physically impossible for him to do anyway. His blood pressure sky high, his heart barely holding on, he attempts one last act, a reconciliation with the baleful daughter from whom he has been estranged.

When “The Whale” was produced at South Coast Repertory last year, the play signaled for me the emergence of a dramatist capable of embodying his human concerns in networks of characters who are profoundly conflicted about releasing themselves from the prisons they call home.

A prolific writer, Hunter has been a regular presence in Southern California for the last few seasons. Rogue Machine Theatre had the foresight to produce the Obie-winning “A Bright New Boise” in 2012. South Coast Repertory produced “The Whale” last year and “Rest” earlier this year, both productions directed with exceptional care by Martin Benson. And last year the Old Globe produced the world premiere of “The Few,” in a sensitive production directed by Davis McCallum.

Through these encounters my gratefulness for Hunter’s presence in the crowded theatrical scene has steadily grown. In naming him a fellow, the MacArthur Foundation has made a wise investment in the American theater’s future.

Another recipient, Alison Bechdel, whose brilliant graphic memoir “Fun Home” is the source for the innovative musical headed to Broadway this spring, also had this theater critic cheering. Her books have become my go-to gift for those I love and esteem. How gratifying that both she and Hunter will be afforded the luxury of time to pursue their singular visions.