On balmy evenings at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, participants of the National Playwrights Conference make their way to a balcony that overlooks the sea, and over wine and laughter, take turns in reading out loud from Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.
The eight playwrights have settled into the campus and, with two more public readings under their belt, have reached the halfway point of the month-long conference.
Samuel D. Hunter's A Great Wilderness braved the elements on its first public reading at the open air Edith Theater. Hot summer rain drizzled over the copper beech tree that shades the theatre and june bugs flew dizzily around the orange lighting, yet the reading persevered and the weather added to the rustic atmosphere of the play.
Hunter is not new to the O'Neill. He was a participant during artistic director Wendy C. Goldberg's first year at the Center in 2005. He was a 23-year-old MFA student and, according to Goldberg, one of the reasons he was chosen was due to the freshness of his writing as well as the fact that he was telling stories about a region of the country not often explored onstage.
"I felt like he was somebody that was investigating a region of the country that I had never seen anyone write about, which was Idaho, and some of the communities of that region," Goldberg said. "He was a new storyteller. Fast forward to now, Sam is a very lauded playwright all over the country. I thought that was the beginning of the investigation of that region and yet again, here is another one coming. I'm excited to have him and be part of his homecoming [to the O'Neill]."
A Great Wilderness is the story the story of an aging man who, deep in the forests of Idaho, runs a camp counseling teenage boys out of their homosexuality. Faced with counseling one last boy, his carefully constructed life falls apart when struck by tragedy, and he is thrust into a series of events that unravel relationships, unveil carefully avoided grievances and untangle complications that threaten to choke him with their grip.
Hunter's previous plays include A Bright New Boise (2011 Obie Award for Playwriting, 2011 Drama Desk Nomination for Best Play) and The Whale. A Great Wilderness is linked to A Bright New Boise, as Hunter found his inspiration from a backstory in Boise's narrative.
A Great Wilderness explores themes of homosexuality, religion, wisdom, aging and the clash of cultural mores. Nature permeates the play.
"I am really interested in the wilderness and its relationship with religion and a big relevation story," Hunter said. "I have a past that involves Christianity and so it frequently comes into my writing. I think that it is something that is not frequently on our stages, that it's something that is a huge part of America and the American consciousness."
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