The Year of the Hunter — Samuel D. Hunter's A Great Wilderness and Rest Come to the Stage

By Evan Henerson
25 Jan 2014

Braden Abraham

On the controversial subject of conversion or reparation therapy (treatment aimed at "curing" a person of homosexuality), Hunter demurred. A Great Wilderness is not a simple dramatic take-down of the practice. The play had its first readings in August 2012, nearly a year before the non-profit Christian — and pro-conversion — organization Exodus International shuttered its doors and publicly apologized to the LGBT Community.

In the wake of Exodus' closing, and the disgrace of its president Alan Chambers acknowledging that he still had same-sex attractions, the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Hawaii have introduced or passed legislation banning conversion therapy.

Not only is A Great Wilderness' Walt no Alan Chambers, Walt eschews organizations that practice formalized methods of conversion. He trusts the methods he has been practicing for decades, but is now seeing what a toll his work has taken. He lives in an Idaho cabin and is, according to Hunter, very much his own island.

In creating Walt, Hunter conducted a certain amount of research into conversion therapy. But he and dramaturg/husband John M. Baker did this research after Hunter had written the first draft of A Great Wilderness in order to keep the play from being "entirely about the research."

"The easiest thing in world would be to write a play about gay conversion therapy, and in the end we all learn that it's wrong. The fact that it's wrong has been very much illustrated and is apparent," said Hunter. "The play is more about how this man's obsession has laid waste not only to his own life but to the lives of the people around him. This character stridently believes that he is operating from a place of love and generosity. That's a tragic flaw that leads to the destruction of his entire life."

Playing the role of Walt is Michael Winters, who not only did the first reading of A Great Wilderness in August 2012 (when it was titled Exodus), but whose last stage gig was playing another famously aging and deluded character, the title role in Shakespeare's King Lear at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

And yes, Winters said the journey through Lear was fruitful preparation for Walt.

"Once I started to realize that both of them are aging and are starting to have mental difficulties, I thought about how that affects their behavior and perceptions," said Winters. "Lear does everything externally. Everything he's thinking and feeling is right out here and he's talking about it and Walt is the opposite. Everything that happens to him happens internally and you sort of have to read the signs and put the pieces together as he is doing over the course of an evening."

"Sam gives his characters such integrity," agreed Braden Abraham, who is directing A Great Wilderness and who has helped shepherd the play through its development. "In order to get to the complete evisceration of this practice, Sam takes us inside these characters to you see their internal struggle. I love this play because it's a real tragedy about the price of living a lie."