Wilderness surrounds the cities of the Northwest. A few hours’ drive and you’re navigating mountains and engulfed by forests. For weekend warriors, the sense of adventure is tantalizing. However, experienced travelers understand that the wild is complicated, risky and to be respected.
Audiences of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s A Great Wilderness should likewise prepare. They won’t be physically ensnared by brambles or beasts, but expect thorny intellectual issues and characters.
A Great Wilderness uses Idaho’s backcountry as the setting for a teenage, gay-reparative camp. Also known as conversion therapy, such real-life organizations aim to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, often under the auspices of religion. The American Psychiatric Association and organizations representing 480,000 mental health professionals oppose conversion therapy. In the play, a teenage boy, Daniel – played by the phenomenal Jack Taylor, a current Ballard High School student – is abandoned by his parents to the “care” of Walt, played by Michael Winters in a tour de force performance.
Liberal-leaning, Seattle audiences might be shocked. A Great Wilderness is not a tidy, morality tale that encourages self-righteous satisfaction. The message is loud and clear that conversion therapy is reprehensible. The twist is whether Walt himself is as easily condemned.
“I wanted to unpack this guy’s life. It’s an interesting question to me that some people approach (running) reparative programs not with hate or vitriol in their minds, but from a place of love and care,” says playwright Sam Hunter.
Hunter grew up in Idaho and attended Christian schools. Now in his thirties and recently married to his longtime boyfriend, he offers complex characterizations of Daniel and the adults who surround him. Only one character, a local forest ranger (played by Gretchen Krich) expresses a different perspective.
“For me, what was difficult about being a gay teenager around a lot of Christians was that they didn’t spurn me. They felt I was struggling with this horrible curse. They came with open arms thinking they could nurture it out of me with love,” says Hunter.
The idea of “safety” is central to the play. Walt’s most literal breach of safety is allowing Daniel to become lost in the woods, which becomes the play’s driving plot point. However, the issues of emotional and spiritual safety are almost more disquieting. If Walt’s homophobia is so repulsive, why isn’t he equally repulsive as a person?
“I don’t like preaching to the choir. This play challenges complacent liberalism by saying it is not enough to just dismiss these people. You have to listen to what they’re saying and then logically dismantle their arguments point by point,” says Jerry Manning, Seattle Rep’s artistic director. “Ultimately, though, Sam lays waste to any sort of rational underpinnings of the religious right’s so-called arguments for conversion therapy.”
Seattle Rep’s production is the world premiere of A Great Wilderness. The company commissioned Hunter to write a play in 2012 based on his prior, Obie Award-winning work. He was given carte blanche to tackle any topic and completed the play’s first draft within six days. It quickly attracted national interest. In addition to the Seattle Rep, it was workshopped at Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center, the William Inge Theatre Festival and the eminently prestigious O’Neill Playwrights Conference.
“I think Sam is one of the brightest young writers on the American horizon right now. He could potentially be the next Tennessee Williams and I say that without blushing,” asserts Manning.
The topic itself is particularly timely. California and New Jersey already passed laws banning conversion therapy. Hawaii, Ohio and Pennsylvania have introduced similar legislation. Currently, proposed Washington House Bill 2451 would classify conversion therapy for minors as “unprofessional conduct” that could result in state and medical disciplinary actions. State Senator Marko Liias sponsored the bill and testified in support at the House Health Care & Wellness Committee’s first public hearing on January 22, 2014. Other allies included a representative from the Washington State Psychological Association who stated that “there is no scientific or evidentiary basis to support sexual change therapy.”
However, illustrating that the topic remains contentious even in a typically liberal state such as Washington, multiple citizens testified to their opposition. One specifically cited the bill as being discriminatory toward conservative and Christian views that consider homosexuality as something that can and should be treated.
Such opinions directly relate to A Great Wilderness. For his part, Hunter understands that presenting such beliefs onstage will upset some audience members. He admits that it “rubs me the wrong way sometimes” even as the writer, but the discussion has to happen for progress to be made – not just legally but culturally.
“I’m not saying to look at their side of the argument and consider it. I believe their side holds no weight. However, there is an emotional weight for them that supports what they’re feeling and believing. I hope the play sheds light on that,” says Hunter. “When they don’t feel they’re coming from a place of insanity or hatred, how do we address that? The larger conversation is complex.”
A Great Wilderness continues to receive national interest and attention. Like any new work, Hunter would like to see it staged elsewhere. A greater hope is for it to reach unexpected audiences – everywhere from New York to small towns in Kansas.
“We live in a country that is so bifurcated with red and blue states and there is such a lack of understanding and communication. In the best possible world, maybe the play can create even a tiny moment of bridging red and blue by someone saying – oh, there really is a human on the other side of this issue,” says Hunter.
A Great Wilderness plays January 17 – February 16. Visit seattlerep.org for details and tickets.