"In a landscape this big it’s easy to see how small you really are.”
An early line in Samuel D. Hunter’s acclaimed play “Lewiston” sets the stage. In total darkness, a woman’s voice starts and stops amid a dull cacophony of highway chatter. She finds herself—and the audience finds itself—in a big country.
It is a world wholly unlike the West Village of Manhattan, where the double bill “Lewiston/Clarkston” debuted at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in October 2018.
The two works will come to Ketchum on Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 8 and 9. The Argyros Performing Arts Center will present free staged play readings of each work—“Clarkston” on Wednesday and “Lewiston” on Thursday—at the Argyros, 120 Main St. S. in Ketchum.
The dramas of “Lewiston” and “Clarkston” unfold in each play’s respective namesake city, each a modest drive from the playwright’s hometown of Moscow.
Clarkston, Wash., rests on the west bank of the Snake River opposite Lewiston, Idaho. The two cities could be one if not for the river and the state border between them. In fact, they belong to a single interstate metropolitan area.
Like the cities and the explorers after whom they are named, Hunter’s plays, while not directly related in terms of plots and characters, are meant for each other.
Out of Hunter’s whole body of work, this connection is certainly the most overt, but his plays all complement each other in one way or another.
Hunter said he likes to set his works in his home state both because of his familiarity with and love of the landscape and because it helps the works cohere.
“In the beginning, I had such a shorthand for that part of the country. I grew up in Idaho. It’s so familiar and it’s something I had access to that was very immediate and specific,” he said. “Over the years, as I did it more often, it changed. It’s not about any one play. It’s about a body of work. The play I’m working on now is very much a response to [the newly premiered] ‘Greater Clements.’ Unifying them geographically keeps them as chapters in the same book.”
As a secondary appeal, he finds that setting plays in Idaho is an opportunity to offer something new to his audience. Since he lives and works in New York City, most of the audience members he encounters do not have a clear concept of Idaho.
“It’s different than writing a play that’s set in, say, Texas. Everyone has specific notions of a place like Texas or even Oregon. I’ve had audience members come to see a play on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and ask if Idaho is in the Midwest. ‘Is it Iowa? I guess not.’”
Jon Kane, director of Sawtooth Productions and of these readings, echoed that sentiment.
“I think one of the things that makes Sam special is that he’s writing about people and a place that’s largely ignored in theater, films and television,” Kane said. “That place is our home—Idaho. That’s why it’s so thrilling to present his work in Sun Valley.”
Hunter’s work takes on setting and characterization in unique ways. His dialogue is suggestive and evocative of the landscape, though obviously the confines of the stage greatly restrict his ability to transport the audience.
“It’d be different if I were making a film. I could have open-vista shots to specifically locate us. You can’t do that in the theater, but that’s part of what I like about it,” Hunter said. “I don’t consider myself a regional writer. I don’t sit down to teach the audience about Idaho. There’s a Pan-American quality to that state that I try to capture in my characters and stories, using Idaho to talk about America. It’s in many ways a blank canvas. The stories could take place anywhere.”
His seemingly self-contradictory ability to evoke a concrete sense of space while simultaneously achieving universality likely helped propel Hunter to receive a 2014 MacArthur Genius Grant. It is worth noting that “Clarkston” and “Lewiston” followed in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
The drama of “Lewiston” unfolds at a failing roadside fireworks stand in the eponymous city and “Clarkston” takes place in a big box store on the other side of the Snake River.
Each play addresses the same question—that of the legacy of the great American push west—in different ways, with “Lewiston” focusing on the past and “Clarkston” on the future.
The Hollywood Reporter described the double bill as “theater of the most deeply moving kind,” positing that “by the
evening’s end, you’ll have a palpable sense of having shared something special with your fellow theatergoers.”
The readings at the Argyros will both be directed by Jon Kane, with “Clarkston” staring Courtney Loving, Alec England and Kagen Albright, and “Lewiston” featuring Patsy Wygle, Charlotte Hemmings, Andrew Alburger and Melodie Taylor-Mauldin.
Each play runs about 90 minutes, with shows beginning at 6:30 p.m. The free readings will be held upstairs in the Argyros’ Bailey Studio.
The readings of these two Drama Desk Award nominees continue Sawtooth Production’s popular and indefinitely ongoing play-reading series, which showcases top local talent reading the highest quality drama. This grants audiences a special insight into the actors’ creative process and acts as a kind of preview; Kane tests the waters with plays he may mount as full-scale theatrical productions down the road.
Theatergoers can kick off 2020 in strong form with this free dual program.