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:
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