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The new Samuel D. Hunter play at Theatre Exile carries a weighty title: A Case for the Existence of God. The actual work concerns itself more with questions of humanity. What does it mean to be a parent, a friend, a man? This 90-minute two-hander reaches profound conclusions through deceptively simple measures.
On the surface, the plot seems quotidian. Ryan (Keith Conallen), a down-on-his-luck factory worker, wants to buy a plot of land once owned by his great-grandparents. He enlists the help of Keith (Isaiah Caleb Stanley), a local mortgage broker, to realize his dream. Ryan and Keith both have daughters around the same age, which bonds the men together before they truly get to know one another.
“A specific kind of sadness”
Of course, nothing can ever be so straightforward, even in the kind of unadorned dramas that Hunter has made his specialty. The audience learns that Keith—who, as a single gay Black man, is an anomaly in rural Idaho, where the play is set—has been fostering his child with the intention to adopt, a plan now threatened by the reappearance of the child’s birth family. The recently divorced Ryan also contains deeper rivers than one might initially expect. Over professional conversations that segue into whiskey-fueled nights, Ryan and Keith become confidants, sounding boards, and, occasionally, adversaries, working through the complicated business of being alive.
“I think we share a specific kind of sadness,” Ryan tells Keith at one point early in the play—an observation that seems jarringly non-sequitur at the time. But Hunter spends much of the action chronicling the bone-deep disappointment that both men live with every day. He shows the viewer how their lives diverged from whatever path they thought it would take and how they try to find glimmers of happiness, comfort, and security amid encroaching darkness. Both men emerge as complicated figures who are essentially good at their core.
The subtext of Hunter’s lofty title might be that we find God in the everyday miracle: your child’s smile, an unexpected stroke of good luck, a friendship you didn’t expect. The relationship between Ryan and Keith endorses this worldview, as does the production. Under Matt Pfeiffer’s tender direction, we witness their fellowship bloom rapidly but genuinely, and it feels entirely reasonable that they would become so important to each other in such a short period of time. The play and production present a true friendship, warts and all.
A genuine relationship
The reliably excellent Conallen finds layers of meaning in Ryan’s every laconic utterance or minor gesture. If the character seems a little familiar at first—the strong silent type, and maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer—we intuit quickly that his outer shell hides deeper rivers. Ryan is someone who tries and fails often, who suffers from the expectations of masculinity, but who ultimately wants to do the right thing. Conallen builds out these qualities with moving dimensions.
Stanley is not initially on his co-star’s level, but as the play progresses, he settles into Keith’s role as a straight-laced foil to Ryan. He hits his stride as Keith’s by-the-book exterior crumbles amid the growing sense that he will lose the child he has raised from birth. And what you never doubt, however, is the rapport they build. The play’s devastatingly beautiful two final scenes, which I won’t spoil here, pack an extra punch because the relationship feels so genuine.
A winter must-see
Scenic and lighting designer Thom Weaver furnishes an ultra-realistic, gray-walled office set that gradually begins to feel more homey and intimate as Ryan and Keith form their bond. Precise lighting cues demarcate the rapid scene changes. Costume designer Leigh Paradise showcases the white-collar/blue-collar divide between the characters in her choices of apparel. As with the writing itself, the production is full of precise choices that reward the thorough viewer.
It’s rare to encounter a must-see play so early in the year, but this production should be on the list for any serious theatergoer in Philly. Even as a jaded theater critic, I left with tears in my eyes. If that’s not a case for the existence of God, I don’t know what is.
What, When, Where
A Case for the Existence of God. By Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Matt Pfeiffer. $35-$40. Through January 28, 2024, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S 13th Street, Philadelphia. theatreexile.org.
Theatre Exile is a wheelchair-accessible venue with all-gender restrooms.
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