War and Wal-Mart 

I Am Montana dissects roots of fanaticism

It takes time to become a suicide bomber. Violent terrorism doesn’t just emerge from a day’s worth of brainwashing. Little things add up: daily despair, the slow stripping down of identity, humiliations as slow and constant as water torture, political and social impotence. People who don’t get this concept usually confuse any attempt to understand a suicide bomber with an endorsement of terrorism, or at least bleeding heart naiveté. But understanding the root of terrorism is a strategy. Philosopher John Berger writes in his book, Hold Everything Dear, that, “Any strategy planned by political leaders to whom despair is unimaginable will fail…Misinterpreting an enemy can lead, in the long run, to defeat—one’s own. This is how empires sometimes fall.”

In I Am Montana, playwright Sam Hunter reconfigures the definitions of “empire,” “terrorist” and “freedom” into a refreshed but recognizable looking-glass world. Box-store culture emits a certain nationalistic air. War induces violence but so do consumerism and the eradication of nature. And people come to the end of their rope for all kinds of reasons.

For Montanans, I Am Montana feels even more personal. Hunter’s play isn’t talking about general American culture or Main Street, U.S.A.— he’s talking specifically about Kalispell, a place denoted by Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake and Bitterroot flowers—all mentioned in the play.

Eben (John DeBoer) was born in Israel but raised in Montana, and he has just returned from a stint with the Israeli Army. The play begins with a flashback where he is trapped beneath rubble next to a Palestinian. In his delirious state of mind he sings, “Montana, Montana, glory of the West!” The Palestinian (played with intriguing tenderness by Grant Olson) asks Eben what he’ll eat when he gets home. The motifs of consumption, consumerism and the emotions that consume us thread throughout the story.

After that first intense war scene, we are introduced to Eben’s post-military life. He comes across emotionally gutted save for his anger, which is growing. His minimum-wage job at Valumart—a thinly disguised Wal-Mart—only rubs salt in the wound.

From the beginning we learn of Valumart’s plan to send Eben, his childhood friend and fellow employee Tommy (Ezra LeBank) and a meth-smoking co-worker named Dirk (Clayton Improta) on a roadtrip to a company conference. There, the company’s asked Eben to appear in a commercial as a former soldier—a cheesy ploy by the chain to identify itself with military honor. No matter that Eben didn’t fight for the U.S. military—it’s the idea of freedom that counts.

Bill Raoul provides a simple set design inside the Crystal Theatre. Metal-framed boxes and platforms serve as motel beds, the car, a table at a chicken joint. A small TV screen flips from picture to picture: an El Camino, the highway, cheap motel rooms. It seems elementary at first, but once the play gets rolling it’s easy to transpose the pictures on the screen onto the skeletal set.

But it hardly makes a strong impact either way since the actors’ firm emotional grip on the material eliminates any need for elaborate sets. DeBoer’s acting stays stoic to a fault, unreachable by anyone on stage or in the audience. LeBank plays the bossy, whiny and fairly desperate Tommy to a “T.” The combination proves perfect. DeBoer carefully reveals Eben’s capacity for caring as well as his simmering fanaticism; it’s so incremental that by the end you know exactly how he got to his boiling point. LeBank is similarly careful. Yes, Tommy epitomizes overemotional geekiness. But his principles win us over. Improta’s Dirk, on the other hand, is more of an enigma. His keen observations fly in the face of addict stereotypes and he has a crush on Eben that is both sinister and sweet. The love triangle adds to the drama, but it doesn’t rule the show. Sexual identity is important to Eben, but the real issue at hand appears more complex thanks to Hunter’s deft writing abilities and director Jere Hodgin’s steady hand.

I wouldn’t dare give away the ending, but I will say it shocks in a way that straddles the line between believability and a horror film. It sinks your heart like a battleship, and in unexpected ways. It would have been easy for Hunter to write a play about the abuses of box stores or to be soap-boxy and pedestrian about the evils of war. But I Am Montana avoids absolutes, pedantry and tying up loose ends. It never once says out loud that the effects of Wal-Mart on a person are like the effects of war. But it winks at the idea. And Hunter doesn’t let his protagonist off the hook. He designates no clear-cut heroes.

I Am Montana anatomizes fanaticism and the perception of inevitability from every angle—war, corporate conformity, the ideology of progress to the detriment of nature. It’s also, thank goodness, not just about big picture stuff. The characters are well rounded, with surprising quirks and motivations that sometimes understandably lead them to both loving acts and fear-induced violence.

Montana Rep Missoula’s I Am Montana continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Nov. 20, through Saturday, Nov. 22, at 8 PM. $15/$10 on Thursday.
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