by Susan Hasho
Not all is well in Amber’s life. She has the air of a woman overburdened and underappreciated. She’s really pissed off at her seemingly unreliable husband Chris. When the play Utility begins, Chris is angling to get back into the house. And Amber is very reluctant to take him back. There are intimations of his fooling around with other women, he says he’s quit the pills, she’s got childcare logistics to figure out, their house, in which she lives with her mother, has mold, and above all Amber’s greatest expression (does she even care about him?) is resignation. Plus, she has two jobs and he hasn’t any. Does she take him back?
Three months later, they’re together in their house and Chris’s older brother Jim is helping with the repairs. Amber has an irritable relationship with Jim, but encourages him to come to her eight-year-old daughter’s birthday party. Amber has hired a clown for the festivities and clowns become a big topic of discussion. All three try to work out the logistics of ice cream, gas money, rides to work, and kids to school.
First thing, day of the party, Amber drops the cake, her mother Laura arrives and brings in a white and pink bicycle and they discuss chewing gum, appropriate birthday gifts for kids, decorations, vaccinations, Jason the brother. The comedy or levity in this play comes from the details; and the deep-down truthfulness of the behavior comes from the slow careful way playwright Emily Schwend builds the relationships and the action. Director Jay Stull has made sure that time is taken, there is no rush here. In this working class Texas town, there is a slow slog of finding jobs that don’t pay much and family members separated by judgement, resentment and little outward affection. The real surprise in this play comes out of the blue during the birthday party. So much desire and missed opportunity is expressed in awkward, slow fits and starts that the beauty of this play explodes quietly. In the slow drip of people going about their challenging lives one day at a time, Emily Schwend has found surprise and a sort of complicated hope.
The actors perform as a graceful ensemble. Melissa Hurst as Laura is multi-faceted in her disappointment and lets each moment unfold effortlessly, at its own pace. James Kautz as Chris vacillates from sly manipulation to downright loyalty and still manages to keep you guessing. Alex Grubbs as Jim is the soul of hesitation and his performance is a fascinating balancing act of concern and desire. And Vanessa Vache as Amber, Laura’s mother is a total pleasure. The set design by Kate Noll is beautifully detailed and plays as much of a character as any other in this production.
Utility is a very satisfying experience, and unfolds like a bittersweet secret. See it!
Utility. Through February 20 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, between West 11th and Perry Streets). www.theamoralists.com
*Photos by Russ Rowland