Tuesday, 11 October 2016

THE HARVEST by Samuel D. Hunter at LCT3

     I saw an early preview of this rich, thought-provoking play. Some specifics may change but I'm sure its haunting quality can only improve.
     Samuel D. Hunter represents one important facet of American literature. He is, in one sense a regional writer, writing about a specific location, Idaho, and inhabitants who are in some form of spiritual crisis. What gives his work its rich flavor is his specificity. Like most regional writers, he is also drawn to vivid, detailed renderings of his characters' physical surroundings. Yet the crucial aspect of his characters is spiritual yearning. They usually come from a specific religious background that they have not found totally nourishing, yet they ask the ultimate questions. Many sophisticated New Yorkers, the sort who go to the theatre frequently, have given up on religion and, perhaps, even given up on the big questions religion is there to answer--or they won't discuss their spiritual hunger in polite society. Hunter takes these theatergoers into a somewhat alien world.
     THE HARVEST is set in the basement of an evangelical church in Idaho Falls. For the first few minutes of the play we watch a group of young people in ecstatic prayer. They speak in tongues as the roll on the floor or pin themselves against the wall. Hunter and his director, Davis McCallum, have emphasized the connection between such religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy (hardly a new connection--look at Renaissance religious art). It's a powerful opening. This small band of twenty-somethings are about to leave to do missionary work in the Middle East. We know from the news what happens to some Christian missionaries in these dangerous places. These folks have learned some basic Arabic and have improvised ways of conveying their message. This is hardly an ideal group of missionaries. Marcus's wife has discovered that she is pregnant. Without consulting her, he has played the role of traditional husband and seen to it that they will be working in an office and not in the field. This has created a rift between them that is not easily sealed back up. Josh, the central character, has been at odds since the death of his father, living in a tent outside his family home rather than venturing inside. When he is not in the tent, he is in the church basement. Unlike his comrades, who are going to the Middle East for a few months, Josh plans to stay there. Everyone tells him that this is courageous, but he knows that it is running away. Josh is desperate for his attempts at faith to be real, for his life to have meaning. His sister, who ran away as a teenager and left him in an unhappy, abusive home, has returned to try to stop him from leaving. Josh's closest friend, Tom, is as lost and unhappy as he. If these young men have not been physically involved, they certainly have a deep emotional connection, perhaps the only real love they have felt in their lives. The patriarchal figure, Pastor Chuck, unseen until almost the end of the play, offers lots of words, but no warmth. Fathers seem useless or worse in this world and mothers have long gone, victims of disappointment and loneliness. Nothing seems more false in this play than smiles.
     As usual, Hunter offers no easy conclusion. It seems clear that Josh and Tom are deeply ambivalent about going on this mission, but don't have the courage to escape together even when escape is offered to them. There's a moment when Josh and Tom are listening to Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" (both men share a love of music). Tom describes how this was written in a prison camp during World War II with the instruments available to the composer and played out in the rain. Beauty made out of misery. The prison these men are in is mental and spiritual. Perhaps love and/or art could be an escape.
     Hunter couldn't have a better ensemble of actors for his lovely play. Peter Mark Kendall makes us care deeply for his bruised, yearning character. Gideon Glick, who was so powerful in Hunter's THE FEW, captures Tom's deep anguish. At the preview I saw, Glick wasn't always audible. He's such a fine actor that I am sure that in the future he'll be loud and clear without losing any of the authenticity he brings to the part. Everyone else is equally honest. Dane Laffrey's setting for the church basement--not quite finished--with the unpainted stairway leading to the sanctuary and the outside world, is just right as is the harsh lighting. Thanks to sound designer Leah Gelpe, we hear the distant music of choir rehearsals.
     I continue to be amazed at how brilliantly Hunter creates big work out of seemingly small situations. Don't miss this.    

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