In The Harvest, Samuel D. Hunter suggests that even fundamentalists are human | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

In The Harvest, Samuel D. Hunter suggests that even fundamentalists are human 

The play defeats expectations and shakes its audience up.

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Michael Courier

If, as the Dalai Lama says, "compassion is the radicalism of our time," then Samuel D. Hunter's 2016 one-act, The Harvest, is the most revolutionary play you're likely to see anytime soon. In this current, angry cultural climate plenty of writers try to catch the zeitgeist by weaponizing empathy: lavishing it on some, withholding it from others in order to shake audiences out of their presumably smug complacency. Not Hunter. The Harvest doles it out to everybody.

But not carelessly. Comprehensive as it is, Hunter's compassion is conscientious and clear-eyed. He doesn't slather it on like barbecue sauce. And he's far from happy-happy friendly about it. As Jonathan Berry's deft staging for Griffin Theatre demonstrates, The Harvest looks to be going for something deeper. More like the odd, impolitic, paradoxical truth of human beings. In doing so it defeats our expectations and, yes, rather quietly shakes us up.

Hunter, who won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2014, has a history of focusing less on the folks most theatergoers have already agreed to feel bad about—the poor, women, people of color, gays—and more on those they can still half-rationalize finding icky: the morbidly obese (Whale), nursing home residents (Rest), and regular Idahoans (multiple plays, since that's where he comes from). True to that pattern, The Harvest sets us down in the basement meeting room of a Christian evangelical church somewhere in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where five young fundamentalists are talking in tongues.

The prayers are prelude to a meeting. Three of the five will be heading off to the Middle East in a matter of days, on a four-month mission to bring Muslims to Jesus. A fourth, Josh (Raphael Diaz), plans to go with them but not to return: feeling alone in the world after having endured the slow, ugly death of his alcoholic father a few weeks earlier, Josh has decided, in his early 20s, to give the rest of his life over to proving what someone else calls "the superiority of Christian culture." The fifth person is their trainer, Ada (a smoothly adroit Kiayla Ryann), who plays Arabic Pictionary with them, tells them suspiciously familiar stories about her own missionary experience, bakes cupcakes, and leads them in uncomfortable role-playing exercises. (Proselytizer: "So you're a Muslim?" Muslim: "Yes.")

We soon find out that Josh isn't as alone as he thinks. His older sister, Michaela (Paloma Nozicka), comes looking for him at the church, having received his text about emigrating to a God-drenched/God-forsaken war zone 7,000 miles away.

Michaela herself ran away when she was 16 years old, ending up in Eugene, Oregon, where things haven't gone well. (Ada: "So what brought you to Eugene?" Michaela: "The meth.") Sadder but wiser now at 25, she's decided to move back home and make a family a deux with Josh, if he'll only agree to change his plans. Michaela is not only a catalyst for Josh's dark night of the soul—he's got his tortured best friend, Tom, to help with that. She's also the voice of the secular world. And Hunter gets that voice pitch-perfect in an early passage where Michaela happens to pick up a church brochure and read it aloud ("Christ's message to the third world is a seedling struggling toward the sun . . . "). Rather than ask her brother about the brochure's content, she asks, "I mean—you have better taste than this. Right?" Above all, she's repelled by the aesthetics of the thing. The ick factor.

Fortunately, Hunter doesn't treat his band of evangelicals with the same condescension that Michaela does—though he doesn't come anywhere near romanticizing them either. Elements down to the sounds from a choir rehearsing in another part of the church are rendered as sour, awkward, or plain comic. Hunter is also acutely aware of the ways in which fundamentalism can mean suppression. As Denise, a mission trainee whose husband won't even let her speak in tongues the way she wants, Kathryn Acosta has a powerful scene in which her role-playing exercise goes tellingly off course. Collin Quinn Rice's delicate, pained Tom has what his worried preacher father (Patrick Blashill) might think of as demons too.

But Hunter and Berry are both scrupulous in their compassion toward their characters. Josh, Tom, Denise, and the others are allowed to believe and to struggle with belief like anyone with a sense of commitment—and a reasonable fear of that commitment—might. Indeed, the strange final seconds of the play are as much a challenge to a liberal audience as they are to the people onstage. Those brilliant seconds acknowledge that there are more things on heaven and earth than are thought of in anybody's philosophy. Anybody's at all.   v

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