Thoughts & Musings

Prodigals: Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise (2011)

  • 25th February 201425/02/14
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Discussion Sunday is March 16th

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
Revelation 21

Our poor old worn–out earth. Environmental chaos. Global warming. Extreme weather. Terrorism. Endless wars. Weapons of mass destruction. Political stalemate. Joblessness. Rotten economy. Hunger. Poverty. Kids with cancer. Men with HIV. Disease. At some point practically everyone must entertain the weary thought: Wouldn’t it be great to just wipe the whole thing out and start over? A fresh start and get it right this time? Most of us, of course, don’t linger there. We’re more with Beckett—“I can’t go on . .  . (shrug) I’ll go on.”

Many thousands of the 30 million fundamentalist Christian Americans, however, base their lives and actions on the belief that the apocalypse is imminent, that we are living in the end of days. While there are many interpretations, the basic idea is that, soon and suddenly, the Rapture will take place when Christ returns and carries off the saved. The unsaved, the rest of humanity, are doomed, swept off into hell—permanent isolation from God.

This is the basic scenario that informs the novel Will is writing in Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise. Central character Will has come out of this evangelical tradition. But his church has been ripped apart by a scandal, the failed reparation therapy (attempted “cure”) of a gay teenaged boy that caused the boy’s death. Will tries to leave all this behind him, leaving Rathdrum and migrating to Boise. There he seeks reconciliation with another lost boy, his own son Alex who was given up for adoption 17 years before. His quest brings him to the break room of the Hobby Lobby, one of those endlessly replicated big box stores that shape the contemporary landscape of America, especially Middle America. Will is torn between an attempt to reconcile with ordinary reality through a fresh start and becoming a true father to his estranged son and the desperate dream of the Rapture that still fills his imagination. “You still believe in God,” his son asks. ”Yes,” Will replies, “Because without God, then all I am is a terrible father who works at Hobby Lobby and lives in his car. There are–greater things in life. There have to be.”

The contrast between Will’s apocalyptic vision of divine redemption and the quotidian reality is striking. There is nothing lovely about the world depicted onstage. It’s a universe of big box stores—Costco, Albertson’s, “Barnes & Noble, JCPenney, three McDonald’s, two Wendy’s, the Super Walmart and the regular Walmart”—peopled by employees stuck forever in hopeless minimum wage situations. Their language is profane and flat and repetitive. The world outside the break room is parking lots, traffic, machine noise and smells.

Yet all the characters in A Bright New Boise are searching for some kind of meaning and identity in this otherwise disappointing earthly world. Anna’s attachment to her mainstream church is based on community and shared friendly activity. Alex is plugged into his music and his ambitions in (bad) protest poetry. Leroy, Alex’s adoptive brother, worries about his little brother’s exposure to frightening fire-and-brimstone religion and tries to steer him towards secular humanism and serious artists. Pauline, interestingly, is the one character who has successfully embraced the world that is. When she was hired, her Hobby Lobby was in complete disorder and ruin. Pauline has reshaped her prosaic little universe, imposing order, productivity, and even security on what had been chaos.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter (b. 1982) often writes about this hugely important social phenomenon that is reshaping American religion but that few playwrights talk about: the conflict between religious fundamentalism and the rapid modernization of this world. He comes by his knowledge from intimate personal experience. Born and raised in Moscow, Idaho, he was sent to a fundamentalist Christian high school for the rigor and quality of the education, which he loved and lapped up. His family was Episcopalian (one of those mainstream Protestant churches) and, though his mother was observant, Sam wasn’t particularly. But he had to “sort of feign agreement over everything . . . I sort of masqueraded as one to get through high school socially.” Beneath his social surface, then, Sam was as isolated and alienated as the characters who populate his plays. He was unusually tall—6 feet tall by the time he was 12 years old. He was gay, although he couldn’t come out about it. He was aware that there was a dark side to the school (“learning about the weird scandals that had been swept under the rug”).  Writing poetry (before he discovered playwriting), he always had to write in forms that were “acceptable for them.” Encountering classic modernist writers, he “connected in such a profound way” but wasn’t “able to talk about it with anybody.” “By the time I was 15 or 16,” he told an interviewer, “I don’t think I really had either a spiritual or a social foundation.” Yet these adolescent events left Hunter with a unique perspective on modern American religious experience. He is fascinated by the tension of “holding these literal interpretations of the Bible in the present day. It’s a very difficult thing to do.”

Hunter’s small town, Midwest background also underlies the play. In his experience, while the surface is “very normal, very nice,” there is something lonely and “fringy” along the margins of the community. “There’s a sense of disconnect and isolation,” and these are the characters who interest him. He carried these formative impressions away with him to his successful education in playwriting at New York University, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and the Juilliard School. His plays have been produced on Off Off Broadway stages until A Bright New Boise won him an OBIE Award for Playwriting and a Drama Desk Nomination for Best Play. An emerging playwright now receiving a great deal of notice, Hunter lives in New York City, but is currently a resident playwright at Washington D.C’s Arena Stage.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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