WALLACE, Idaho — Late in October, the playwright Samuel D. Hunter crouched in a defunct silver mine in Northern Idaho. A blue hard hat sat on his head and 600 feet of quartz, zinc and lead clustered above him, held in place with an anxiety-baiting assortment of chicken wire and metal plates. The walls of the cavern, wreathed in flowstone, glittered in brown and gray.
Prodded by the tour guide, Marty McNamee, a third-generation miner with a scraggly beard and a light-up helmet, Hunter approached a rusted track mucker. (Think of a bulldozer with an inferiority complex.) “That’s got more power than you can believe,” McNamee said as he switched it on.
The mucker screeched, shuddering into life. Hunter shook as he tugged at the levers, shoveling groundwater and ore.
Hunter, 38, had last visited the mine about 25 years ago on a field trip with his eighth grade class. More recently he has reimagined it for “Greater Clements,” a drama that opens on Dec. 9 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. It stars Judith Ivey as Maggie, a 65-year-old woman who runs a mine tour in a town a lot like this one, but smaller and more derelict. A visit from an old boyfriend dangles the possibility of escape. But if you are acquainted Hunter’s work, nearly all of it set in Idaho, you will know that almost no one gets out, not for long, not alive.
McNamee shut the machine off. “You’re hired,” he said. “See you at 7 in the morning.”
Hunter stepped away from the mucker. “I’ll stick to fiction,” he said.
I’d met Hunter for the first time very early that morning, at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, picking him out in the terminal from pictures I had seen online. He has short hair and thin-rimmed glasses, a face that defaults to bashful, a smile that skews contrite. He could stand six-foot-three, but he carries himself with what he calls “an apologetic slouch,” humility made visible.
“I never thought that I would be able to live the life that I’m living right now, as an artist with a child and a husband and a dog and people who care about what I write,” he would tell me the next day, as we drove out of Wallace. “It makes me feel so overwhelmed with gratitude, I kind of approach the world from that stance.”
At the J.F.K. gate, we shared my Xanax — airports rattle him, I hate flying — and took our seats. After landing in Spokane, Wash., we picked up a rental car and crossed the border into Idaho. He apologized for his driving and for many things beyond his control — snow, motel noise, lack of vegetarian options.
Hunter’s sense of place is richer and more particular than any other American playwright working today. “A Bright New Boise,”“The Whale,” “The Few,” “Pocatello” and “Lewiston/ Clarkston” form a body of work that explores, as the MacArthur Foundation put it in a 2014 citation, “the human capacity for empathy and confront the socially isolating aspects of contemporary life across the American landscape.” Idaho’s particular landscape — its hills, its plains, its big-box stores, small-town churches and highways — shades each of his plays.
Because I wanted to understand the relationship between the Idaho he left at 18 — though he returns yearly to visit his parents and brother — and the theatrical one he has been creating since, we spent three days driving past and through the towns, businesses and roadside attractions that have shaped his work.
Hunter was born in 1981 in Pullman, Wash., and grew up in Moscow, Idaho, the seat of the University of Idaho. His father, now semiretired, practiced emergency room medicine in nearby Lewiston. His mother was a homemaker. He was a smart kid and a talented pianist, but shy, overweight and socially inept. In the seventh grade, he began attending Logos, a private Christian school with a rigorous curriculum.
Around that time he began to write, first ghost stories and then angsty poems. Around that time he realized he was gay. “It was kind of like a dreadful thing to realize,” he said, dreadful because he didn’t know any gay men in his community, dreadful because the threat of AIDS loomed, dreadful because he knew what the Bible said about relationships between men.
In his junior year, he came out to a few of his classmates. Concerned for his soul, they reported him to the administration. The administration, he said, “approached it from this misguided sense of empathy, which was like, ‘Oh my God, you have this problem. Let us help you with this problem!’” With the support of his parents, he transferred midyear to the public school instead.
“It was not the greatest time,” he said, with typical understatement. But it was also, perversely, a gift. He couldn’t hide anymore. So he didn’t. He went to poetry readings. He ran for student council and won. He wrote a play — three hours long, set in New York, about a junkie and a priest — and convinced the community theater to give him money to produce it. For the first time, he imagined a life beyond Idaho. New York University accepted him.
When he arrived in Manhattan in 2000, he immersed himself in the theatrical avant-garde — the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, Elevator Repair Service. His own writing faltered. (It took him years to accept that he was basically a realist, “a second coming out,” he said.) At the end of his freshman year, he set a script in Potlatch, Idaho — a town of 800, which we drove past on our second day.
“It was the first time that people in class were like, ‘Oh!’” he said. So he set more of them in Idaho — in Boise, in Pocatello, in Viola, in Lewiston, in Idaho Falls, in the River of No Return Wilderness, in a grain silo near Kendrick, in a trailer outside of Mullan, at the Clearwater River Casino. The Idaho state motto is “Esto Perpetua” or “Let It Be Perpetual.” In his work so far, Idaho is.
At first, setting plays in Idaho was a kind of accident, a shortcut to specificity. But in 2013, during a residency at Arena Stage, in Washington, D.C., he was awarded a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and he used some of the money to drive the length of Idaho. What was accidental became deliberate. “It was around that time that I started feeling ‘You know what? It’s not about any one play,’” he said.
The Idaho we saw — even superficially, over just a few days — felt predictably different from his plays. More brewpubs. Decent coffee. Fewer people consumed by existential dread. But other elements were recognizable, like the flat vowels and the plaid shirts and the helpful practicality, like the lonesomeness of the undifferentiated plains, like the apposition of wilderness and chain stores.
In Wallace, at a gemstone shop, Hunter bought a rock — of silver ore and fool’s gold — quarried in the 1920s. In Bovill, he stopped in front of a boarded-up, century-old opera house. In Troy, the world’s self-described pea and lentil capital, he walked through the grocery his grandparents once owned to see if it still carried his uncle’s potato sausage. In Juliaetta, he wandered the parched grass of a cemetery, looking for those grandparents’ graves. In Clarkston, just over the Washington border, he pulled into a Costco parking lot. Past the RV park, he could just make out the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, near where Lewis and Clark had once camped.
In Moscow, our final stop, he drove me past a shabby apartment complex where he imagines Charlie, the morbidly obese protagonist of “The Whale,” his breakout play produced by Playwrights Horizons in 2012, might have lived. In “The Whale,” Charlie, a literature professor now reduced to online teaching, is eating himself into an early grave after the death of his lover. “That’s kind of a fun-house mirror version of me if a few key things in my life hadn’t happened,” Hunter said.
But those key things did happen. He has a husband now, the dramaturge John Baker; a young daughter, Frances Hunter-Baker; a gleaming duplex in Manhattan’s Inwood; the MacArthur grant. (Old habits: When Hunter got the call about the MacArthur, he wondered if the foundation had made a mistake, Baker told me.)
I had been trying to get my head around his writerly fixation — and it’s a fixation that “Greater Clements” shares — on people who are stuck, or suffering. Why couldn’t he confer his own blessings on his characters?
“I’m always more interested in the stories of people on the losing end of American life.” he said.
But during our conversations in the car, I also came to understand the plays as emotional autofiction, dissimilar to him in character, but not in feeling. That’s what Davis McCallum, Hunter’s director of choice, would tell me over dinner weeks later. “His plays feel very personal,” McCallum said. “Not literally autobiographical, but personal.”
Several of Hunter’s scripts have themes — religion, sexuality, escape — that explicitly reflect his adolescence. All of them, from his juvenilia through “Greater Clements,” which was written while he and Baker were in the fraught process of adopting their daughter, explore the need for human connection and the difficulty of achieving it. As the actor Gideon Glick, a frequent collaborator put it, in an email message: “Sam strives for catharsis in his writing — for himself and for his characters. It’s therapy for him.”
I had wondered how people in Idaho receive his plays, and on the last morning of the trip, I assembled a small and biased focus group: Hunter’s parents, Jay and Corinne.
“I never watch one of Sam’s plays and think, ‘That’s not Idaho,’” Corinne Hunter said. We were speaking over breakfast — cinnamon rolls her husband had baked — in the dining room of the trim two-story house Hunter grew up in.
His mother said that she had to adjust to the darkness of his plays. They didn’t reflect her experience of the world. “I try not to see the dark stuff. But he does see the darkness in things,” she said. “At least he gets it out only in his writing.”
“I don’t see them as all that dark,” Jay Hunter said.
After breakfast we drove to the airport. I next saw Hunter three weeks later, in the Lincoln Center Theater lobby, after a preview performance of “Greater Clements.” I noted a new line, inspired by the rock he bought in Wallace, and some sound design informed by McNamee’s comment that when you are deep down in the mine the walls talk to you. Hunter had worried that visiting the real places might undermine the fiction somehow, but as he told me from a lobby bench, while a shaken audience filed out, the road trip “enlivened the play and how the play lived in my mind.”
“That sounds so dumb,” he said, still apologizing.
Did he wonder if the play, a three-act tragedy that Hunter doesn’t acknowledge as bleak, made life in Idaho seem too dismal? What about the real people there, the decent coffee? “I can’t burden myself with that,” he said.
But Hunter has begun to look beyond Idaho and maybe beyond tragedy, too. He wrote on all four seasons of the FX comedy “Baskets,” set in Bakersfield, Calif., and he recently spent a week in Alabama, researching a film adaptation of the podcast “S-Town.”
If his next play, still untitled, is again set in Idaho — Twin Falls, this time — it takes a different tone, influenced in part, by his daughter. It expresses, tentatively and not without pain, a kind of optimism.
Would he finally give an Idaho play a happy ending? Hunter wouldn’t go that far. “It’s hopeful,” he said.