REVIEW: A Case for the Existence of God by Samuel D Hunter – Red Stitch

An office cubicle, floating in inky black darkness. Two chairs. A computer. Phone. Stacks of paperwork. Pamphlets that hope to explain the process of getting a mortgage through a broker.

Ryan - a recently divorced father of one - sits across the desk from Keith – the mortgage broker, who we’ll soon learn is foster father to a young girl. Ryan doesn’t understand the process of applying for a loan to buy a parcel of land that use to be owned by his family. Keith tries to explain, but it’s all lost on the other man, who still wears his wedding ring, grieving the breakdown of his family.

Both men live in a small town in Idaho and their girls attend the same childcare centre and, it turns out later, they went to high school together. They have touchstones and milestones in common, but their lives are entirely different. 

Ryan is a child of divorce, in a family that’s been shaken by mental illness for decades. Keith is comfortable in his office job, even though he studied early music and can bend your ear about long ago songs that didn’t even have harmonies. Ryan can’t get his head around that notion any more than he can reconcile the hoops he has to jump through to get the money to start a new life for his daughter and himself.

Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God is an exploration of finding unexpected connections in our lives and being open to the stories of others. It threads the dramatic needle perfectly, by putting two almost-strangers together without pitting them against each other.

The dramatic tension is how they navigate the trials of parenthood and capitalism and modern small-town America. They have both been socialised to brush things off and keep going and the story hinges on the possibility of Ryan and Keith being able to reach beyond what’s expected of them. Or, to be truly honest, what they expect of themselves.

Darcy Kent’s performance as Ryan is incredible. The weight of economic disadvantage, familial grief and a growing sense of unease about paperwork in Ryan is painted into a moving portrait by Kent.

Keith might have more emotional maturity and a comfortable job, but his anxieties about his foster child (and the possibility of losing her) leads to the finest performance I’ve ever seen from Kevin Hofbauer. You can see how tightly wound Keith is without Hofbauer having to resort to anything more than the way he clumsily answers the phone or shies away from an offer of comfort from Kent’s Ryan.

This astonishing pair of performances is guided by director Gary Abraham’s sure hand. He’s allowed the two actors to speak not just through Hunter’s words but a delicate, physical shorthand – emblematic of two men who are scared of intimacy and honesty.

Abrahams has assembled an extraordinary design team, too. Jeremy Pryles’ set design is stark, but with surprising depth. Sidney Younger’s lighting design holds the characters in a kind of bubble away from the world at first and then shifts subtly as the two men get to know each other. Rachel Lewindon’s sound design is equally delicate at first, slowly opening up our aural experience as the two-hander takes us to new places and spaces.

I was deeply moved by this play. It’s funny, insightful. Sometimes it evoked a subtle tear and then, later, heaving sobs. I am in awe of what has been created here, because it has so much to say but is never heavy-handed. And a story about finding a connection with a stranger can be the stuff of much lighter fare. But this is a beautifully-crafted tale of reaching out across the widening emotional chasms of the modern world that can keep us far apart.

There is an epilogue that reaches beyond the naturalism of the rest of the play and this production gives it a metaphysical layer – finding connection across time and space. The black walls are now pierced with light, scattered across the void like stars.

For me, the tableau evoked these lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

If Ryan and Keith have the cracks of life in them, that’s where the light of hope gets in. The existence of luck and connection and the divine is proven. And we are lucky enough to bear witness to it.

Samuel D. Hunter’s play is simple but extraordinary. Red Stitch’s production is one of their all-time best. Do not miss this.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First 

A Case for the Existence of God is on until May 12th

Photographs: Jodie Hutchinson