[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]amuel D. Hunter’s play A Great Wilderness was originally written in only six days, as the inspiration had been simmering in him for some time. The play retains some of that raw energy and is a testament to the powerful places that a creative mind can go once inspiration hits. Hunter comments, “I knew the emotional journey of A Great Wilderness from the beginning. I knew what the last line was going to be. Writing the play was about writing up to that moment.” The play was refined, especially in examining the psychological journey and background of each character, which is crucial given the delicate nature of the topic—sexuality, identity, and the painful path taken by some who wish to change these things about themselves and others. Hunter is a young talent, but the accolades he has received thus far seem well-deserved given his deft and human handling of controversial stories.
The story of Wilderness revolves around Walt, played by Michael Winters, who is a counselor who practices conversion therapy—that is, therapy that aims to “cure” homosexuality. The politics of the practice are not the central matter (conversion therapy is now banned in several states and is widely denounced by doctors and psychiatrists), but rather its immediate effects and the reasoning behind those who practice it. With the introduction of a new and final client Daniel, played by Ballard High school senior Jack Taylor, Walt’s ideals are shaken, down to the very idea of what homosexuality means, even as he prepares to retire to an assisted living community. Walt’s background includes an ex-wife Abby (Christine Estabrook) and her husband Tim (R. Hamilton Wright), also a counselor. Daniel’s mother Eunice (Mari Nelson) and forest patrol woman Janet (Gretchen Krich) are strong supporting roles and give deeper insight into the various ways our communities connect, support each other, and also harm one another, even with the best intentions.
Playwright Hunter makes it very clear that the audience is intentionally placed in a state of confusion and often irritation when he says, “with A Great Wilderness, I want to keep things as complicated as possible, so I can leave the discussion in the audience’s lap.” Walt is a complicated protagonist. In his cabin in the trees, his reminiscences are revealed to the audience as flashbacks, giving clarity to the arc of his life but no easy answers as to what is right and wrong. The play itself is haunting and tense. A woman seated next to me commented that the climax of the story felt so stressful, it was as if we as watchers were meant to feel ourselves in the closet.
Without revealing too much of the story, I will say that the play is not meant to entertain. It is meant to challenge, and most will leave the theatre with a somber and agonizing sense of unfairness. It’s an unresolved cliffhanger, and the theatre stirs with a sort of numb transparency, still waiting for an all-important conclusion to hit.
It must be said that in June 2013, Exodus International, a non-profit Christian organization devoted to “curing” homosexuality through conversion therapy, shuttered its doors and apologized for the “pain and hurt” they caused. Some questioned the sincerity of the apology when the official position of the organization remained that “homosexual behavior” was to be avoided even if sexuality is immutable. Others pointed out that no amount of apologizing could undo the suffering of those who underwent therapy or bring back those who committed suicide after the trauma and failure of it. Furthermore, Exodus was not the only group who supports conversion therapy, and former members continue to endorse it. As conversion therapy proponents are fighting bans on the practice—on minors, especially—despite a great deal of research indicating that it is harmful to those who undergo it—the topic of A Great Wilderness is timely and troubling. With humanity and tact, Hunter shines a delicate light on it, making the harm of these things visible and suggests that it extends far beyond the subject of the therapy. I very much look forward to what he has to bring to the stage in the future, as it does not look like this young man is anywhere from slowing down.
A Great Wilderness plays through February 16 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.