For the first time in more than a dozen plays, Samuel D. Hunter has left Idaho altogether.
By about a half mile.
“Lewiston/Clarkston,” easily the most ambitious staging of Mr. Hunter’s work to date, has the hallmarks that have made him one of the most acclaimed playwrights of his era: fine-grained distillations of forgiveness and faith, an eagerness to engage with people on all sides of the country’s economic and religious divides.
But this time the entire second half of the evening — an immersive diptych presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, complete with a communal meal — takes place just across the Idaho-Washington border, which is delineated by the Snake River.
Not to worry, according to Chris, one of the three “Clarkston” characters. “The bridge is just like a three-minute drive down there,” he counsels Jake, a fellow Costco employee — and a distant relative of William Clark, half of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition that provided these two cities with their names.
A total of 51 Rattlestick audience members are currently making their own pilgrimage over the course of “Lewiston/Clarkston,” which opens Oct. 25. While Mr. Hunter had always conceived of a combined evening, both “Lewiston” (which similarly features some of Meriwether Lewis’s relatives) and “Clarkston” received individual regional stagings in 2016.
“I needed to treat them as two separate things and get each of them on their feet first,” he said.
And when Daniella Topol, who took over as artistic director of Rattlestick two years ago, approached Mr. Hunter about tackling something larger, they decided to gut the Rattlestick space and essentially turn it into two different theaters.
“We’re always intimate,” Ms. Topol said of Rattlestick, which presented Mr. Hunter’s “The Few” in 2014. “But we’re going into radical intimacy here.”
The first half of the evening — “Lewiston,” a melancholy family reunion set at a bedraggled roadside fireworks stand — operates within a small space even by Mr. Hunter’s miniaturist standards. “The whole thing is just 38 feet by 12 feet, which is ridiculous,” said the “Lewiston/Clarkston” director, Davis McCallum.
A moving wall separates that space from a prearranged dining area. Through a series of traffic-control measures — barbecue chicken (or tofu) and coleslaw over here, coffee and dessert over there — the “Lewiston” space as well as the original dining area are converted mid-meal into a larger playing area for “Clarkston,” set in and around a Costco.
“This is basically two-thirds of our season,” Ms. Topol said of the production, which has a considerably longer run than a typical Rattlestick show, in part because of the smaller seating capacity. The cast includes Noah Robbins (“Forever”) and Leah Karpel, a veteran of several plays by Mr. Hunter.
Both “Lewiston” and “Clarkston” talk obliquely about Lewis, Clark and their expedition, but Mr. Hunter said they use this tight focus to raise far broader ideas. “As individual plays, they’re each very small and delicate and kind of quiet,” he said. “But here they turn into two points on a map that calibrate one another and make the themes wider. It becomes more like a question and a response.”
Mr. McCallum describes that central question as one that hinges on American self-definition, both in the 19th century and today. “What are the things we put our faith in as Americans?” he said. “What are the mythologies we invest in?”
While the creators considered letting audiences see the plays over multiple days or just see one, as with “Angels in America” and “The Norman Conquests,” they decided to consistently begin with “Lewiston” and segue to “Clarkston.”
And although people are assigned seats to “Lewiston,” the hope is that mealtime conversations will spill into a looser, less regimented seating arrangement for the second half. (Theaters will have the option in the future of producing either or both of the plays. First up is Boise Contemporary Theater, which will present the two works in repertory in February.)
“You’re not just sitting in the dark for 90 minutes in this receptive mood,” Mr. Hunter said. “We all sit together and eat together and go through this together. In this moment in American history, where we’re all treading very lightly on very thin ice, I think that can be very helpful.”
Mr. Hunter, a native of Moscow, Idaho, has said repeatedly that his works — which have chronicled a morbidly obese writing instructor (“The Whale”), a newspaper for truckers (“The Few”) and a group of young missionaries (“The Harvest”) — dovetail in terms of tone as well as the Idaho setting.
But with “Lewiston/Clarkston,” these affinities come into starker relief: Tiny references to one of the two plays bleed into the other, and the two works end on the same day.
“I’m trying not to make it too tricksy,” Mr. Hunter said. “But I do think these plays speak to one another in quiet ways.”
One such overlap involves the actor Heidi Armbruster, who plays a troubled mother in “Clarkston” (a role she created at the Dallas Theater Center in 2015) and also recorded the audio for an unseen family member in “Lewiston.”
“Both plays talk a lot about the thrill and the promise of the American dream versus the reality of it,” Ms. Armbruster said. “And even though that can be kind of dark, Sam’s plays are fueled by this sort of revolutionary kindness.”
Promotional materials push the idea of the evening broaching the “end of the American experiment,” an idea posed at times by the mainstays of these two towns and at times by the coastal youngsters who have just arrived. (One character has fled an urban farm in Seattle, the other a Vermont education in post-colonial gender studies.)
As one character says in “Clarkston,” “It’s a terrible time to be alive. There’s just nothing left to discover.”
Surely this sentiment isn’t shared by its author, who is just now creeping beyond the self-imposed boundaries that have earned him an Obie Award and a MacArthur “genius grant”? Or by Rattlestick, which has gutted its space to incorporate Mr. Hunter’s snug yet capacious vision?
Mr. Hunter’s response was framed a bit by his new responsibilities: He and his husband, the dramaturge John Baker, became parents this year. In fact, he had come to that day’s rehearsals directly from a frantic — and ultimately innocuous — early-morning trip to the pediatrician.
“My daughter is likely — hopefully — going to live to see the year 2100,” Mr. Hunter said. “I now feel like I don’t have the luxury of being pessimistic.”
And so several of the “Lewiston/Clarkston” characters as well as their creator find themselves exploring newer, larger, hopefully brighter possibilities — one half mile at a time.