Surviving loneliness in Chamber Theatre’s ‘The Few’

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Cut into a cross section of the American psyche and you will find at least a little bit of loneliness in everyone. However, the absence of human connection is rarely as deeply felt as it is in the loneliness of the long-distance trucker.

Award-winning playwright and out author Samuel D. Hunter captures such loneliness — and despair, anger and even a bit of humor — in The Few.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens 2017 with the state premiere of Hunter’s 2013 work on Feb. 23 at the Studio Theatre in Milwaukee’s Broadway Theatre Center. The show runs through March 19.

The drama focuses on three characters involved in publishing The Few, a newspaper for truckers that attempts to stem the tide of loneliness for those who drive so many highway miles. The paper’s sometimes-heartbreaking personal ads provide the lion’s share of income for the meager publication — and the ads’ content captures the themes of the play in an emotional and evocative fashion, says director C. Michael Wright.

“A few summers ago my partner (Skylight Music Theatre interim artistic director Ray Jivoff) and I saw The Few off-Broadway at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and fell in love with the piece,” says Wright, the Chamber Theatre’s producing artistic director. “It was a pretty insightful character study of lost and lonely people and seemed perfect for MCT and our 2016–17 ‘Season of Misfits.’”

In Hunter’s narrative, Bryan (American Players Theatre veteran James Ridge), returns to the dingy doublewide in rural Idaho that serves as the publication’s office after an extended and unexplained absence. His former partner QZ (Mary McDonald Kerr) greets his return with caution and resentment.

Enter Matthew (Mitch Bultman), a 19-year-old gay man taken in by QZ when his father threw him out after catching him having sex with the wrong person. For Matthew, Bryan’s return is a bit like the second coming of a would-be Messiah, as Bryan’s earlier articles had inspired him.

But Bryan is in no mood to save anyone, especially himself.

According to Hunter, who grew up gay in northern Idaho, there is a bit of himself in each of the three characters. For instance, like Matthew, he was 18 in 1999, when the play takes place — a year after he came out.

As to the paper itself, Hunter says it’s based on similar publications he saw when he was in grad school in Iowa City, Iowa, a college town near the truck stop Iowa 80, said to be the world’s largest. It features a customized truck showroom, movie theater and dental and chiropractic services, along with restaurants, showers and fuel bays.

“I stopped there and picked up a newspaper called Country Singles that was nothing but personal ads,” says Hunter, who’s earned multiple awards for his work, including a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. “These ads were like flares being sent up in the night and these people seemed like the last American cowboys, especially the long-distance truckers.”

Hunter says The Few is not about driving a truck, but rather a story about community.

“At about 86 minutes, this is my shortest play and yet it took the most time to write,” Hunter says. “Was it about democracy and discourse? I wrote 50 pages and decided it just didn’t feel right.”

The chance to revisit The Few during a workshop in Minneapolis clarified Hunter’s vision.

“I realized this wasn’t a play about big, heady ideas,” he explains. “It was a play about loneliness and isolation and about people seeking human connections.”

Both Bryan and QZ embody that loneliness, the kind reflected in the personal ads the paper publishes. Those ads come to life in the Chamber Theatre’s version through a series of voices on an answering machine leaving their desperate messages in hopes of having them published.

“Bryan and QZ are not older people, but people made world-weary by having been put through the wringer of life,” Hunter says. “This is especially true of Bryan, who’s in a sort of spiritual coma after discovering that the human connection he thought he had was nothing more than an illusion.”

The character of Matthew operates at the other end of the spectrum. He’s bright, albeit awkward and, despite having demons of his own, sees in Bryan and his earlier writings the hope and optimism he desperately seeks.

“Matthew’s Messiah has returned and he spends the entire play trying to wake him up,” Hunter says.

As to Bryan’s secret, Hunter says there’s “no big reveal” at the end of the play. Bryan’s accumulated circumstances over the years have depleted his energies and spirits, and it’s bringing him back to center that concerns the other two characters.

The comfort of home

The fact The Few is set in Idaho isn’t unusual, since all of Hunter’s plays are set in his home state, providing him with specificity about the surroundings so he could comfortably explore his themes without learning the details of new settings.

“What I love about the plays, now I’ve become a mid-career artist with a body of work, is that they all feel like branches of the same tree,” says Hunter, who studied theater at NYU. “It’s like several chapters of the same novel. I don’t know that this is what I always will do, but it’s excited me for a long time.”

His themes still will resonate among those in the house for The Few.

“Even though Hunter is zooming in on just a few individuals, I feel quite certain audiences will be able to relate to these people,” director Wright says. “That’s the beauty of the play’s title. It’s not just these few characters that are hoping to connect with someone. Aren’t we all?”

Out in Idaho

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter did not come out as a gay man in his native northern Idaho until 1998, the year he turned 17. Events in neighboring Wyoming contributed to his decision.

Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie when he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge Oct. 6, 1998. The men offered to give Shepard a ride home, but instead drove him to a desolate area, where they robbed and tortured Shepard and then left him to die.

Shepard’s murder spurred the passage of hate crime legislation. His death also served as the basis for Moisés Kaufman’s play The Laramie Project.

Hunter was a student at a religious high school in 1998 and the response to Shepard’s murder affected him deeply. The parents’ negative attitude toward homosexuality allowed students to “run rampant,” he said.

“A friend of mine made a joke about the Shepard killing and that was the worst thing I heard,” said Hunter, who left the school at the end of the term and never went back.

On stage

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few runs Feb. 23–March 19 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Individual tickets run from $15 to $40. For tickets, call 414-291-7800. Find more online at milwaukeechambertheatre.com.