‘Stunning Idaho’ backdrop for Hunter play

Playwright Samuel Hunter’s newest work opened this week in Ketchum, Idaho.

KETCHUM, Idaho — Idaho theatergoers will have a rare opportunity later next week to experience something extraordinary in the mountains around Sun Valley. The outdoor stage is a special way to welcome the return of live theater to Idaho and one of the state’s remarkable native sons.

“A Case for the Existence of God,” a new work by award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter, opened Wednesday for a 10-show run as part of Field Daze, a summer event series at Sun Valley’s Reinheimer Ranch. It’s presented by Sawtooth Productions, Laughing Stock Theater in conjunction with the Argyros Performing Arts Center in Ketchum.

The landscape of Hunter’s home state has always played a huge role in his body of work. This is the first time one of his plays has been performed outside, and that it’s in Idaho makes it more special.

“Any time I can figure out a way to work in Idaho is exciting to me,” Hunter said, in a phone interview from Ketchum earlier this month. “And that we could do it at sunset ... sounded incredible.”

This is the perfect play for this place, time and treatment, Hunter said. “Existence” is set in Twin Falls, just 80 miles away from the resort mountain town. It’s a small play filled with big ideas created for a post-pandemic world. He wrote it on the heels of his 10th play, the epic “Greater Clements,” a three-hour tragedy set in a fictional Idaho mining town, commissioned by and performed at New York’s Lincoln Center, a pinnacle of American theatrical venues.

After that, it was time to take a new direction in scope and tone, he said.

“(‘Clements’) is a very dark play, almost on the verge of apocalyptic,” Hunter admitted. “It’s also one of the biggest things I have done. It’s like I reached the top or something and with this play, I wanted to get back to the beginning. After the pandemic, I knew a lot of theaters would be struggling. I took it as a personal mandate to write shows that can be produced with full integrity for not an arm and a leg. This play could be done in someone’s living room.”

Its two characters — Keith, a mortgage broker, and Ryan, who is trying to get a loan — meet over five months in Keith’s small office, while they try to work out a deal and a bond. Both in their mid-30s, Keith is gay and Black, and Ryan is a white former high school star who has fallen on hard times. Both struggle with their roles as fathers, their fight to stay in their daughters’ lives, and their ability to become friends. With each interaction, the ideas they encounter become larger and larger.

Hunter wrote “Clements” while he and his husband, John Baker, were in the difficult process of adopting. “Existence” was written as Hunter adjusted to fatherhood. Those personal events influenced Hunter’s work.

“When I was first writing it, I kept asking if it was a piece of therapy for myself or is it a play. It’s not usually my approach. My hope is that it’s keying into something bigger. What is the future for our children? And what about friendship between men? There are places where that just can’t happen. We’re always striving for that common ground where humanity exists.”

Idaho grown

The Idaho landscape is a constant inspiration for Hunter because it’s in his blood. Hunter grew up in Moscow, dreaming of a career as a writer. He planned to go to the University of Idaho, but on a lark sent an application to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts — and he got in. He continued his studies at Juilliard and the University of Iowa’s famed Writers’ Workshop.

Relatively quickly, he became a sensation in 2010 with his play “A Bright New Boise,” about an estranged father and son trying to reconnect in the break room of a Boise Hobby Lobby craft store. It earned him 2011 Obie and Drama Desk awards and national attention. His next production, “The Whale,” earned him a Drama Desk Special Award for Significant Contribution to Theatre, and it continues to be one of his most performed and successful plays. The following year, Hunter received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation award, often called a “genius grant,” because recipients are selected based on the quality of their work, not through an application process.

His characters are fresh and rare: a Hobby Lobby worker, an Olive Garden manager, Idaho evangelical youths and the denizens of a fictional Idaho mining town. But it’s his connection to the mystical and sometimes mythical rural West that captures the attention and touches a universal note in the theatrical world.

How it came together

Hunter’s latest venture started with a chance meeting during an intermission in his two-play cycle “Lewiston/Clarkston” at New York City’s Rattlestick Playwright’s Theater in early 2018. Ketchum-based theater producer Jonathan Kane approached Hunter to come out to Sun Valley. It took awhile, but they stayed in touch. Then in 2020, Hunter had a play set in Twin Falls, an Idaho city he had never visited. So Kane invited him to do a reading of the play at his Sawtooth Productions.

Kane flew Hunter to Ketchum for the first reading of “A Case for the Existence of God” in early March 2020. That was just before the coronavirus pandemic exploded in Blaine County, making it a COVID-19 epicenter in the early part of the global health crisis. This play is a commission by New York City’s Signature Theatre and was supposed to have its world premiere in 2021. The pandemic halted Signature’s production, and Hunter retreated to the Berkshires with Baker and their now 3-year-old daughter. As the theater world began reopening, the play’s premiere was set for winter 2022. That’s when Kane came up with the idea to perform the play on an outdoor stage, with Signature’s permission.

Kane pulled together a stellar production team and cast: Director Paul Lazar of New York’s Big Dance Theater; actor Pete Simpson Jr., who won the 2017 Obie award for Sustained Excellence, as Ryan; and actor Stevie Johnson, a University of Southern California faculty member, as Keith.

For Kane, this production brings a breath of fresh air after a year of isolation and no theater.

“This is an amazing opportunity to frame this play about Idaho within Idaho’s landscape,” he said. “After all, Idaho is a character in Sam’s plays.”

And this could be the beginning of a longer connection between Hunter, Kane and Sun Valley. They are in the process of developing a playwright’s residency during October in the Wood River Valley, in partnership with the Community Library and Baker, who is a dramaturg.

The residency will focus on the work of one writer. This fall, playwright David Cale is the recipient.