Playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s 2016 work “The Harvest,” receiving its Chicago premiere in an affecting Griffin Theatre production, opens on a scene of remarkable intimacy: five young people in prayer, each of them individually raising their voices to God with increasing intensity until their language itself transcends meaning. The worshipers are exhibiting the phenomenon known in certain religious traditions as “speaking in tongues.”
When: Through Aug. 25
Where: The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $36; students, seniors and veterans $31
Run time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with no intermission
The spell this opening scene casts on the audience is only slightly broken when, after the amens, one of the young men affectionately scolds a young woman — apparently not for the first time — for doing it wrong. Never mind that had he been doing it “right” himself he wouldn’t have been able to monitor her work. But not to worry, he later promises her: There are YouTube tutorials they can watch to help practice this supposedly unconscious act.
Religious faith, and the accompanying worries about “doing it” wrong or right, are common themes for Hunter, a prolific 37-year-old who’s based in New York City but sets nearly all of his plays in his home state of Idaho.
A gay writer who grew up attending fundamentalist churches and schools in Moscow, Idaho, on the border of Washington state, Hunter has empathetically examined the below-the-surface turmoils of small-town lives — set against such unassuming backdrops as big-box retail stores, nursing homes and chain restaurants — in quietly arresting works like “The Whale,” “A Bright New Boise” and “Pocatello.” “The Harvest” takes place in Idaho Falls, in the basement of an evangelical Christian church that one character describes as “an island of truth in an ocean of Mormon apostasy.” But not all of the parishioners find their truth to be so self-evident.
(The proverbial church basement holds such a hallowed place in the annals of Chicago theater, with its role in the origin of the Steppenwolf Theatre, that it’s sort of poetic to see scenic designer Sotirios Livaditis create a perfectly shabby rendition of such a dugout on the Den Theatre’s second floor.)
It’s here that four young church members, seemingly just out of high school, are training with an only slightly older and not much wiser mentor for an upcoming mission trip to the Middle East. Marcus (Taylor Del Vecchio) and Denise (Kathryn Acosta), the pair who gently clashed over prayer styles in the play’s first moments, turn out to be young newlyweds; they’re planning to stay four months abroad, as are Tom (Collin Quinn Rice), whose sensitive carriage barely masks an unspoken yearning, and Ada (Kiayla Ryann), the obsequious adviser who’s been “over there” once before.
But the central figure of “The Harvest” is Josh (the appealingly ambiguous Raphael Diaz), who found refuge in the church family while his biological family was failing him. We learn that he’s spent most of his teens picking up after an alcoholic father who’s recently — and maybe relievingly — passed away. Reeling from loss, lacking a sense of purpose in his life and hoping for a sign from God, Josh has announced his intention to relocate to the other side of the world permanently, unless his estranged sister Michaela (Paloma Nozicka) or Tom, the devoted best friend who brought him into the church in the first place, can make him change his mind.
One of Hunter’s great strengths as a playwright is his compassion for his characters. He lets us see the shortcomings of overconfident evangelism, for instance — sharply drawn here in the ways these hopeful proselytizers inflate their own conversion experiences while showing little interest in the real concerns of those they hope to convert — but never judges them for the seeking.
That the mission-trippers only refer to their destination as “the Middle East” or “over there” might be a hedge against real-world intrusions, but I think it’s also a knowing take on young people so sheltered that the entire region feels to them like a stereotypical monolith — as exotic and unknowable as eastern Idaho might be to, say, the average urban American theatergoer.
Director Jonathan Berry, who also helmed Griffin’s production of “Pocatello” in 2015, is a terrific match for Hunter. Again and again over the last decade or so, Berry has demonstrated an aptitude for identifying this city’s top young actors and eliciting from them grounded portrayals of everyday desperation. With its nuanced interrogation of faith and resonant, moving work by Diaz, Rice and Nozicka, “The Harvest” should yield a bumper crop of post-show conversations.
Subscribe to the Sun-Times Entertainment newsletter today!