Mortar Theatre’s ‘I Am Montana’ is a minimum-wage play with a lot to say

Derek Garza is happy to help you in “I Am Montana.”

I’ve a love/hate relationship with Walmart. While I hear the arguments that it’s destroying communities, cheats workers out of basic rights and equal pay and perpetuates that dirty word, “consumerism,” they have so much cheap crap in one store, I can’t resist.

I’ve an equally conflicted view of Samuel D. Hunter’s play, I Am Montana, currently receiving a skillfully realized Midwest premiere by Mortar Theatre. Hunter has a lot to say in this compact play, and a lot of it is important, big topic stuff — particularly about the impact big-box stores such as Walmart have on our lives and land.

At the center, we have Eben (Derek Garza), an emotionally damaged young man who’s recently returned home to Montana — and back to his middle-wage job at “Valumart” — from a traumatic stint in the Israeli army. His life-long friend Tommy (Sentell Harper) also works at Valumart, and longs for his friend to open up to him about what happened in Israel. The bulk of the play takes place on the road, as Tommy, Eben and their meth-head coworker Dirk (Josh Nordmark) travel cross-country to a Valumart convention.

As the trio makes the four-day journey, tensions mount. Eben won’t confide in Tommy about his experience of having been buried alive in rubble for weeks with a suicide bomber; Tommy, who’s very gay, is in love with Eben; and Dirk, who can read people like a book, sees where it’s all going before they get there. And when they do get there, Eben has some big plans in store.

Along the way, Hunter implies that not everything can easily be cast as “good” and “evil.” The terrorist actually may have a conscience, the greedy big-box corporation might just be filling an inevitable need. Somewhere between good and evil lies a gray truth.

But, what I struggled with the next morning after seeing Mortar’s well acted and smartly directed production is that Hunter is so keen on making his point(s), emotional honesty is sacrificed for a Big Message. For example, in a pinnacle scene, Tommy shares his perspective to Eben about the value of Valumart, and it comes out sounding like talking points rather than an emotional plea to his dearest friend. And, without giving away spoilers, the motivation behind Eben’s final task seems more a manipulation to shockingly connect the themes Hunter’s presented to us, rather than something this character would actually do based on the information we’re given.

So, while I really respected Hunter’s brave play and Mortar’s excellent execution of it, I had some reservations.

“I Am Montana” plays through May 1 at Athhenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport Ave. More info here >

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