nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
July 16, 2008
What is it about country folk? With her new play, childhood Montana, currently running as part of the Midtown International Theater Festival, Mira Gibson charges into the struggle between the collection of mistakes we hide in the country and America's more "civilized" city-dwellers. While admittedly trying to tap the Sam Shepard vein, this play feels more like a Deliverance for Big Sky country, and ultimately suffers from a heavy hand.
Courtney (Amber Bodgewiecz), a legal secretary in rural Montana, arrives at the Miller farm to get Wayne Miller's (Jamie Watson) signature on some legal documents. Wayne, who lives on the ranch with his 14-year old mentally handicapped son Owen—played with rich conviction by Jill Leithauser—has, we slowly learn, been implicated in the death of a local woman who ate at a restaurant that served meat from Wayne's farm. And, what's worse, Courtney apparently looks exactly like Wayne's recently deceased wife, leading him to try to take some familiar advantages with her. From Owen, Courtney learns just where Wayne stormed off to with that big knife, and all comes to a head with the appearance of Bill Mason (David Ballog), Wayne's brother-in-law, who seems to be an ally to Courtney but, it turns out, also has his own twisted ends in mind. By the end, the cows on the ranch aren't the only ones who die.
If this sounds like a good plot for a slasher movie, it's because that is how much of the play comes across. While it claims to explore the idea of justifiable murder, childhood Montana doesn't make an argument so much as it coats the evidence on with a very big brush. It seems to reason that murder can be justified if the people being killed are so awful that they don't deserve to live. Okay. So, how awful is too awful? The answer is less interesting than excessive. Further, the show is designed, for the most part, naturalistically, and Gibson, who also directs her script, keeps the characters so earnest with their over-the-top evils that it pushes the play past the point where an audience can comfortably engage in the story.
But there are some fun pieces in all this, as well. Setting a play in the world of cattle-ranching and meat processing is an interesting first step—a great background for a play about the relativity of the word "humanity"—and there are some points of very nice writing from Gibson. childhood Montana just goes too far in trying to shock its audience with how nasty some folk can be...well, country folk, at least.