by Michel Bowen

In a time when those on one side of the environmental debate would have wilderness preserved by executive fiat, and while the other faction blithely soft-pedals both global warming and the arsenic levels in drinking water, Bryan Harnetiaux's new play Smithereens attempts to maintain a kind of balance. The environmentalists are exemplified by Digger Monaghan, the kind of grizzled old coot you'd expect to harangue mindless tourists and other predators via the airwaves of a 500-watt radio station in Harrison, Mont. In the opposite corner, we have the developers, who are represented -- not merely stereotyped as insensitive robber barons -- by Frank, the kind of suit-with-laptop you'd expect to envision a theme park just outside the gates of Yellowstone National Park. Digger and Frank are brothers. They don't get along. Haven't seen each other in 20 years. This particular eco-battle is steeped in sibling animosity.

Harnetiaux begins his play with three isolated monologues. Naturally, the characters (Digger, Frank and Digger's companion Ann) begin to drop hints about their interrelationships. Early in the play, the technique is entertaining and effective enough in introducing us to characters. Twice later in the evening, however, when the dialogue, for example, simultaneously weaves among a radio broadcast, a legal hearing and a campfire conversation, the choice obscures rather than clarifies some of the conflicts. Interwoven scenes work best when the audience gradually becomes aware that one conversation parallels and comments upon another.

At one point, Digger's radio rant functions as a retort to some of Frank's legal maneuvering, and the chiming of disparate scenes became interesting. For the most part, however, this staging of three simultaneous scenes seemed more gimmicky than illuminating (through no fault of the cast).

The most intriguing contrast in the play, however, is not between Mountain Man and Business Man, but between two players on the same side of the debate. One is an environmental advocate who worships and revels in nature, Eve (Marianne McLaughlin, in a passionate performance). The other eco-extremist is Digger (the fine, curmudgeonly Edward Snead), who would rather spew venom at capitalists than positively express his own love of nature. We see Eve reveling in nature; Digger just talks about it. Eve takes concrete action to redeem the land that is sacred to her; what Digger seeks to preserve, he only ends up destroying. There's a lesson in here somewhere for certain protesters in Seattle and Quebec.

The common opponent of Digger and Eve, Digger's brother Frank, downplays his profit motive. Instead, he preaches convenience, reasoning that the average working family doesn't have either the time or the inclination to cobble together a lot of camping gear and expend the effort necessary to have a wilderness experience. Instead of going to all that trouble, why not just build a few faux geysers and charge admission? J. P. O'Shaughnessy plays Frank as a personable charmer, fully capable of divining his opponents' real motives and using such knowledge against them.

Frank's is a very public character. We often see him in public settings -- a press conference, a town hall meeting -- and as a result we don't have access to his motivations in the same way we do with Digger, who laments the loss of his wife in a searing self-indictment. Snead delivers the story of Sara's death -- the play's most gripping account -- with the kind of self-revelation absent from the character's diatribes on the air. It's an interior moment that's foreign to Digger's brother. Moreover, Frank seems more removed from us than either of the play's two women -- Eve, who waxes eloquent on a couple of occasions about her almost spiritual connection with the Earth, and Ann (Maria A. Caprile), whose spirituality is of the more traditional, Roman Catholic type. Wisely, Harnetiaux leaves some of Frank's desires unresolved. In particular, the question of why he has chosen now, years later, to invade the territory of his older brother is left unsettled. Still, in the central role of Digger, Snead's is the performance to watch.

The play is a tragedy of extremists (Digger especially) who self-destruct and leave in ruins -- yes, in smithereens -- the very things they most wanted to preserve. The dramatist observes Chekhov's admonition about using in the second act any devices that are prominently on display in the first. But observing that precept leads to the most glaring weakness in the script: Simply put, the play's ending is too sensationalistic and improbable. Smithereens would profit by imitating Sam Shepard's True West -- another play about warring brothers and our encroachment upon Earth -- by leaving its ending less resolved, its controversies left for the audience to evaluate.

The final image of Shepard's play has the brothers circling one another warily. The struggle between those who seek to "improve" the environment (like Frank) and those who seek to leave it inviolate (like Eve and Digger) goes on, crucial and yet interminable. Instead of grasping at a slam-bang ending, Harnetiaux's play ought to imitate more closely that aspect of our contemporary debate over the environment.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.