I Am Montana by Samuel D Hunter is a play about values. In this case the “values” of the megastore Valumart and, by implication, what is valuable about the USA.
Three minimum wage employees take a road trip from Montana to Iowa to give a presentation about retail work at Valumart’s convention. Though not without dark humour, this is no jolly jaunt for three amigos.
Eben is a traumatised and taciturn former Israeli soldier with a secret past and a suitcase containing a secret plan for the future. He has a passion for flowers and one in particular, the bitterroot, Montana’s state flower. He is loved and idolised by Tommy, who used to be the 'boy next door'. They are joined by Dirk, a crystal-meth addict who becomes the third member of an unconventional love triangle.
This main narrative is punctuated by two other stories: flashbacks to Hebron, where Eben was trapped beneath a collapsed building with a Palestinian suicide bomber, and scenes in Eben’s head, in which the Valumart Valupig cashes in on his notoriety, using him as an embodiment of the American Dream to front a commercial.
The first half of I Am Montana sets up the tensions and conflicts with skill and passion. The resolution of plot and themes after the break is less satisfying perhaps because of the scale of the play’s ambition. It tackles huge issues: the onward, alienating march of bland, megastore America at the expense of America’s stunning natural beauty; the Palestinian conflict; violence and fanaticism among others. It is also about lies, both corporate and personal.
Sherri Kronfeld’s production is slick and energetic and the apparently simple set of boxes stamped with the Valumart Valupig, is used imaginatively. The atmospheric lighting proves that less can be more in scenes of almost complete blackout in Hebron. Damian Reynolds’ soundscape adds to the tension here and elsewhere uses Muzak and snippets from US radio stations to capture some of the blandness of mid-American life.
The performances are all strong. Kevin Watt’s Eben burns with repressed anger while David Ames evokes both empathy and mild irritation with the optimistic Tommy. Christopher Berry is convincing as the spaced out stoner with a gun, while Mark Curtis, in dual roles, is unnerving as the Valumart Valupig yet a sympathetic suicide bomber. One of the best moments in the play comes when Curtis morphs from the former into the latter.
I am Montana perhaps lacks the focus of the Yaller Skunk Company’s most recent examination of the American Dream, Back of the Throat. It is however an intelligent, ambitious stab at linking the personal to the political. A meticulous production and strong performances make this a tight, gripping and stimulating piece.