Cardboard boxes stacked high on Dexion shelving. The slate-grey floor dissected by a schematic of white no-go lines. Large boxes, small boxes, coffin-like boxes, tiny boxes, all blazoned with the same inanely-grinning caricature of a Valumart pig. Stock room world for the Valumart employees, themselves resplendent in their blue nylon waistcoats adorned with “Have-I-served-you-well?” and “Have-a-nice-day!” badges. Studio 2 at the Arcola conjures this stifling small-town corporate-identity-trademarked shopping-experience storeroom with claustrophobic intensity.
Lighting changes transport us thousands of miles to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Plunged into absolute darkness, we hear as two survivors of a collapsed and shelled building embrace the awful realism of their slow, lingering deaths beneath the rubble. One voice belongs to an American and Israeli-Army conscript, the other, a Hamas Palestinian, his leg bleeding from shrapnel, a suicide bomb still wound round his body ready to explode. As this parallel flashback narrative unfolds, tiny shafts of light reveal a shoelace, then an eye and cheek, sufficient to remind us that these are real, living people in a real dying world.
One man ultimately survives both these worlds, both these hostile environments. Valumart employee and Israeli Army veteran and moderately famous survivor, Eben, is obviously deeply affected by his war experience. Now returned to the banal existence of his retail job, Eben has survived to love and to nurture the one true passion of his sad life – a Bitterroot plant, the adopted floral emblem of the State of Montana. Here in Valumart No 1870, one of so many franchised Valumarts that spread their retail tentacles throughout the backwater states, works a man for whom a Bitterroot is representative of all that he has lost, whether as orphaned child or as adult soldier.
Eben's passionate care for his Bitterroot is nothing, though, to the passionate longing of his Valumart colleague, Tommy. Besotted with his childhood friend, Tommy expresses an innocent devotion and love for Eben which is as honestly and openly sexual as it is deeply needy. Tommy will do anything for his love. Flowers and presents. Care and utter respect. Even changing the line-manager's plane tickets for the right to drive for four days to the Valumart annual jamboree, where Eben is to be guest employee paraded as a symbol of corporate goodwill, just to be alongside his dearest friend and ex-lover.
The journey is less successful than Tommy hoped, not least because of Eben's apparent disdain for his old friend, but also because of the presence of Dirk. Meth addict and sexually fascinated by the dark and mysterious Eben, Dirk seduces the ex-soldier away from Tommy's ever-open arms. Homoerotic and deeply moving, their encounter is one of distance and passionate disdain. Nothing is resolved, nothing seems to change. Eben is still as determinedly intent on fulfilling his chosen destiny, one which skilfully encompasses those dark and painful days in subterranean captivity.
Samuel D. Hunter has written a remarkable play which metaphorically punches its audience in the chest from opening moment to emotionally-moving end. The shifts in narrative, the subtle imagery and points of reference, all add to an evening of intelligent and memorable theatre. The four actors who play five distinctive roles are quite astonishing. Kevin Watt is an utterly convincing Eben, his delivery calm and strong. Flashes of lust are juxtaposed with long, melancholic passages of existence. Watt allows us to enter Eben's distorted mind, to observe the turmoil and to escape again to watch his resolution and strangely poignant salvation.
Watt is matched by David Ames as Tommy. Ames's face is that of a sad and tormented child. As Tommy, Ames allows the character to express true love and devotion with that knowing innocence that comes from being incapable of masking an emotion. Who could fail to respond to Tommy's charm? As the play develops, however, Ames allows his character to develop also, his final act one of ultimate love and unfathomable strength.
Eben is seduced by the wayward drug-induced flirtatiousness of Christopher Berry's Dirk. Without the least trace of contrivance, Berry conjures the transition between nonentity and gun-wielding meth-crazed vamp with ease. With Johnny-Depp charm, Berry convinces Eben into his bed and us to believe in the darkness of this ultimately cowardly soul's existence.
Finally, Mark Curtis, whose inane grinning as the Valumart Valupig, whipping up his audience of Valumart employees into a frenzy of corporate razzmatazz, is as funny as his Palestinian survivor is painfully saddening. Two more opposing characters played by the same actor could not be imagined. Curtis embraces both with a simple change of voice and relaxation of facial expression.
Sherri Kronfeld has directed a remarkable piece of theatre. Its message is not so much of hope, but of inevitability. It is a message of survival. Like the Montana Bitterroot – its Latin name rediviva alludes to its ability to survive buried underground and without water for months – this tale of a buried soldier newly resurrected mirrors that of the ‘resurrection flower' he so lovingly nurtures.
Whether beneath the bombed-out rubble of a Palestinian apartment block, or the tarmacked car park of a Valumart shopping complex, there will always be a ‘resurrection flower' waiting to force its shoots towards the light. How it survives, what nurtures it beneath in its darkness world, is another matter, one which the play explores with intelligence and enlightened political objectivity. For an evening of passion and love and story-telling at its theatrical best, I Am Montana cannot be beaten.
© Kevin Quarmby, 2009
2nd June - 27th June 2009
Starting time: 8.15 PM
Writer: Samuel D Hunter
Director: Sherri Kronfeld
Designer: Georgia Lowe
Lighting: Richard Williamson
Sound: Damian Reynolds
Costume: Sarah Ferdinando
Asst. Director: Katie Lewis
Dramaturg: John M. Baker
Stage Manager: Adam Tripp
Eben: Kevin Watt
The Valumart Valupig: Mark Curtis
Dirk: Christopher Berry
Tommy: David Ames
For the Arcola Theatre website click here.
Link to Yaller Skunk Theatre Company.
This review first appeared on the British Theatre Guide.