by Douglas Langworthy for Applause magazine
Weighing in at 600 lbs, Charlie’s health is failing fast. He refuses to go to the hospital because he has no insurance and doesn’t want to lose the substantial nest egg he has squirreled away for Ellie, his daughter, with whom he desperately wants to reconcile. But Ellie’s a bitter, angry girl who blames Charlie for abandoning the family 15 years earlier. From this fraught set of given circumstances the stakes keep getting higher in The Whale, Samuel D. Hunter’s gripping new play now playing at the Denver Center Theatre Company's Ricketson Theatre.
There is nothing faint-hearted about Hunter’s writing—his taut, deeply human dramas present sharply etched portraits of struggling individuals who often get swept along in strong cultural currents. But although issues such as international terrorism, genocide, suicide, the Rapture figure into his plays, they are never about these issues. Take Charlie, for instance. While obesity presents a major obstacle for him (he may die before making peace with his daughter), The Whale is not a power point presentation about America’s obsession with food, but rather one man’s personal struggle to find greater meaning in his life before it’s too late.
Another topic Hunter is not afraid to confront is religion, which is folded into many of his plays. In The Whale Elder Thomas, a young Mormon missionary struggling with his own troubled past, tries to share his faith with Charlie.
“Most of my plays are about seeking hope and meaning,” says Hunter, “and [religion] is the eternal well of hope and meaning for most Americans. It so shaped my childhood growing up in Idaho and going to a religious school, and so I see it in the larger cultural dialogue a lot. Mostly I write about it because people don’t seem to want to talk about it.”
When Sam graduated from his fundamentalist Christian high school, he assumed he would go to the University of Idaho like all those ancestors before him. But on a lark he sent in an application to NYU and was accepted into the playwriting program. After NYU, he went straight into a Masters program at the Iowa playwrights program and from there he entered Juilliard’s graduate playwriting program. While in Iowa he was mentored by playwright Sherry Kramer, who helped him look at plays in unconventional ways: “Sherry had a way of talking about how plays move, the way plays are organized other than plot. How plays are organized by image and metaphor—deeper organizational tools that really allowed me to start thinking about plays not as plots but as structured time.”
Certainly one of the organizing metaphors in The Whale is that of the whale itself, with its strong biblical and literary resonances. But Hunter did not start writing with that image in mind, it came to him organically. He initially included Moby Dick in the play because he needed Charlie’s students to be writing essays about a novel: “I picked Moby Dick because I like the book and the essential conflict in the novel related to the central conflict in the play—going after this thing that you can never get.”
Charlie’s job, teaching writing on-line, came in part from Hunter’s own experience. One year he found himself teaching expository writing at Rutgers in New Jersey, where he discovered that writing a good play and writing a good essay are very similar—they both need honesty and genuine thought. But the students were resistant.
“These kids couldn’t be honest,” Hunter laments. “Their main question was, ‘What do you want me to say?’ It was so deeply frustrating and deeply intriguing that they all-out refused to have a voice.” Throughout the play Charlie uses every trick in the book to get his students and even his daughter to express themselves honestly.
Hunter tends to people his plays with members of the working class—the sales clerks, nurses, on-line instructors and adjunct professors that make up the 99% of this country. There’s no social agenda here, he just finds them more representative of who we are: “I think the prevalence of upper middle class and upper class characters in our plays is surprising, especially given the fact that the majority of America is not these people. When I think about America, [working class people] are the people I think about.”
Writing without an ounce of irony or condescension, Hunter makes us feel his empathy for his characters. He has a way of unearthing their contradictions and creating individuals we at first may think we have very little in common with (the obese gay man, the religious fundamentalist blogger), until we understand them in a deeper way.
While Hunter was at NYU, he wanted to branch out academically so he minored in Middle Eastern Studies, even learning a little Arabic. Then in 2005, the first year of his Masters program in Iowa, he was offered a chance to teach a playwriting workshop in Ramallah. He eagerly seized the opportunity, later teaching in war-torn Hebron as well. “I knew the headlines of the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Hunter says “but I had no opinions either way, and I became even less on either side after spending a couple of summers there. It was just so deeply complicated. It was terrifying and beautiful.”
As with his own writing, Hunter had to look at it all through a human lens: “So much of my experience in Palestine was not about guns and bombs, it was about learning to live with guns and bombs. How people go to the supermarket even though the checkpoints are closed and there’s gunfire going on.”
At the end of one of Sam’s plays you come away with the feeling you’ve just witnessed something profound. Whether you’ve just seen a wife mourning the loss of her husband or a father trying to reconnect with his estranged child, you’ve had a rare chance to set aside surface impressions and walk in someone else’s shoes. And although the play may have its sad, even tragic side, there is always the counterweight of compassion and hope. Deeply complicated. Terrible and beautiful indeed.
Douglas Langworthy is the Literary Manager of the Denver Center Theatre Company