Thursday, October 19, 2006

"Jesus in Montana"

Thursday’s audience laughed hard at Barry Smith’s “Jesus in Montana” but there was a nervous edge to it.

Which is not surprising, since Smith’s hour-long solo performance at the Manitou Art Theater is about his real-life membership in a doomsday cult. As Smith excitedly presented his story — aided by a slickly produced power-point presentation — I wasn’t always certain whether I was laughing with him, laughing at him, or just laughing to keep some emotional distance between myself and Smith’s story.

Tall and wiry, Smith has the look of an ascetic saint born a millennium or two too late. His greatest strength as a performer is his sheer energy, which carries the audience away just as Smith was carried away when he accepted Leland Jensen, a retired chiropractor in Missoula, Montana, as Jesus.

Smith is also a skilled writer, deftly weaving together the events and cultural patterns that led him to Montana — from his strict Southern Baptist upbringing to the bizarre coincidence involving his childhood address.

Despite the bellylaughs, “Jesus in Montana” is fundamentally a serious piece. As Smith relates in a memorable but unprintable tale of a hard-hatted worker and a Snickers bar, many of us drift through life, never committing ourselves to anything with our whole being. Smith’s commitment may have been misguided, but he made it.

The piece brought me back to my own days as an Evangelical Christian, and the accompanying ecstasy of certainty. It’s a sobering fact of human nature that most of us prefer the comforting warmth of feeling right to the hard, self-denying work of being right, and once we’ve experienced that feeling, we’ll rationalize furiously to maintain it.

It’s admirable that Smith explores this phase of his life without either ridicule or rationalization. He’s still looking for patterns in the pieces of his life, but in “Jesus in Montana,” the pieces now fit in a uniquely personal way.

Smith will repeat his show today and Saturday. Call 685-4729 for more information.


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