Greater Clements marks the eighth professional collaboration between playwright Samuel D. Hunter and director Davis McCallum. Thus I could not resist asking McCallum, when he and I got together before a rehearsal recently, how he and Hunter, known as Sam, met.
That first encounter, McCallum replied, took place in New Haven. Page 73, an award-winning theater company that supports emerging playwrights, was having a retreat there. “I got a call from the producers saying there had been some issues with housing and would I mind having a roommate for the week. I got up to New Haven and I checked into my room. Sam was my roommate. He was sitting way down at the end near these windows reading a book. I introduced myself and asked, ‘What are you reading?’ He turned the book around. It was the size of a dictionary. The title said, Genocide. I thought: O-kay!”
Hunter, it turned out, had written a play called Five Genocides. McCallum said: “It was really funny and weird and rigorous and surprising and dark.” He ended up directing a full production of it in New York, produced as part of Clubbed Thumb’s venerable Summerworks series.
Hunter’s plays have often taken on weighty subject matter – literally so, with his marvelous 2012 play, The Whale, about an obese man. But McCallum, who grew up in Atlanta, said that “a case can be made that all Sam’s plays till now are comedies, in a Shakespearean sense. Shakespeare’s comedies, even the dark ones, like Measure for Measure, end with a wedding. It’s a moment of human connection, and Sam’s plays also end with connection.”
Greater Clements marks a slight departure. “This is the first of Sam’s plays,” McCallum said, “that he has expressly described as a tragedy. By that he doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of humor, because there is. He means that we really want things to work out for these characters but they keep trying to connect and don’t. The play is partly about near-misses.”
McCallum talked about staging Greater Clements. “There are some spatial challenges with this play. We have the upstairs of a house, the downstairs of a house, we go outside, there’s a mine. We had to find a physical vocabulary for how all these spaces can cohere. Especially in a space with such a strong identity as the Mitzi. It’s one of my favorite theater spaces in New York. It’s very much about the actor being in the bowl of an audience.”
McCallum works most frequently in a space very different from the Mitzi Newhouse – a 500-seat outdoor tent. That’s the main venue for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare festival, an hour north of the city, where for the past five years McCallum has been the Artistic Director.
“It’s a magical place to put on a Shakespeare play,” he said. “The style of performance that the company has evolved is very much about the relationship between the actor and the audience. Out style is very playful, irreverent, and unapologetically American. It’s been rejuvenating for me as a director to work there.”
The verdant sweep of the Hudson valley is much different from the Idaho landscapes of Hunter’s plays. McCallum told me that he’s visited that state. “I spent a month in Boise, directing Namaste Man, a play by the great actor/playwright Andrew Weems. I loved it there.”
McCallum hasn’t been to northern Idaho, where Hunter grew up and where Greater Clements takes place. “In a weird way I feel that I now have a highly evolved idea of what that area is because I’ve spent so much time imaginatively investigating it. If I went there it might have no relationship to what I’ve imagined. Or it might look exactly as it’s portrayed in Sam’s plays. Until I do get there I’m happy to be continuing the investigation with Greater Clements.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com