“It’s sort of hard to know how to live nowadays, isn’t it?”
This question, asked by the main character of Samuel D. Hunter’s play “Pocatello,” is answered with only a shrug-worthy “Yeah,” but its true meaning approaches something more profound.
“I think that question is fundamental to the play,” Hunter said. “A version of that question is asked in a lot of my plays. It’s never really answered.”
Drifting toward the rhetorical, that simple “isn’t it?” succinctly captures the universal quality of Hunter’s works. At once focused in a particular place and time, his plays can never simply be taken at face value, always applying more broadly to America and the ever-elusive human condition.
A native of Moscow, Idaho, Hunter’s writings frequently return to his home state. “Pocatello,” next in line for Sawtooth Production’s ongoing play-reading series, explores a failing Italian restaurant in the titular Idaho city.
Though family-operated, the restaurant is part of a chain. According to Hunter, the decision to use this particular chain came about “because I wanted the play, though set in Idaho, to feel like it could be happening anywhere in America.”
In a last-ditch effort to drum up lifesaving business, the restaurant’s manager, Eddie, celebrates a special “famiglia week.” He struggles to hold on to an endearingly unspectacular dream, even as his hometown economy dries up and his friends and family abandon ship for life beyond the confines of Pocatello.
“What’s great about setting plays in Idaho is that most people who see theater in New York, or elsewhere, for that matter, have [no] concept of what Idaho is like at all,” Hunter said.
As a playwright, he enjoys the simultaneously romantic and down-to-earth, mundane duality of the Idaho landscape, juxtaposing “the banal with the divine.”
While he aims to capture the spirit of the state, his work is not entirely based on reality.
“I think the Idaho I’ve constructed is more of a fictionalized version of the state that is reflective of a lot of places in nonurban America,” he said.
Pocatello in this context operates as shorthand for Everytown, U.S.A.
Hunter’s first play, “A Bright New Boise,” premiered in 2010. Within four years, he received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, popularly referred to as the “genius grant.”
In addition to this highly coveted honor, Hunter is also the distinguished recipient of a Drama Desk Award, an Obie, a Whiting Award and an honorary doctorate from the University of Idaho.
During his nine-year career, this prolific playwright has penned more than a dozen original works, with more on the way.
The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have all, in one review or another, aptly likened Hunter to acclaimed playwright Sam Shepard.
“Pocatello” walks a tightrope between witty comedy and the quiet, blue-collar tragedies that define the best Bruce Springsteen albums. Hunter’s characters, each fully realized, often deflect their troubles with jokes and light bickering in a believable and relatable manner.
Though “Pocatello,” like most of Hunter’s work, first opened in New York, it will make the long trek back to Idaho for the upcoming play reading, presented by Sawtooth Productions in association with Laughing Stock.
The reading will take place at the Argyros Performing Arts Center, on Main Street in Ketchum, on Friday, Feb. 15, at 6:30 p.m.
Sawtooth has been mounting live play readings for decades now, but according to Artistic Director Jon Kane, “Pocatello” will enlist its largest cast yet. Ten local actors and actresses will lend their talents to bring Hunter’s manuscript to life.
David Janeski will take the lead role of Eddie, with support from Matt Gorby, Claudia McCain, Melodie Mauldin, Natalie Battistone, Kagen Albright, Aly Wepplo, Chris Carwithen, Bill Nagel and Juliette Rollins, a junior at Wood River High School.
“They’re 10 incredible actors,” Kane said.
He said he often has to defend play reading as an art form, especially in contrast to a fully mounted stage production. Kane finds that despite any reluctance that audiences may feel to begin with, those inhibitions are quickly dispensed with.
“People feel like they’re getting a behind-the-scenes look at the actors’ process,” he said.
Several of Sawtooth’s play readings have evolved into theatrical productions. Kane did not preclude “Pocatello” from that possibility, suggesting that the future may well hold another iteration of Hunter’s play.
Though the free play readings are consistently popular, Sawtooth’s next undertaking, set for April, will be a full stage production of “Outside Mullingar” by John Patrick Shanley.
Since opening its doors in November, the Argyros has hosted several musical performances, dance ensembles and film festivals, but “Outside Mullingar” will be its first fully fledged theatrical stage undertaking.
As with most other play readings presented by Sawtooth Productions, “Pocatello” will be presented free of charge. Audience members will be able to enjoy complimentary wine and light snacks as well.