The grind is a hard thing to dramatize. In most plays, we expect the characters’ circumstances, outlooks, or choices to change; that’s part of what makes narrative so satisfying. Stories are measurable. Cause and effect can be clear. But in Emily Schwend’s “Utility,” currently running at Rivendell Theatre, courtesy of Interrobang Theatre Project, circumstances don’t change, and choices don’t seem to appear. A life in poverty is a life measured only by how far each paycheck can stretch, and each character exits the play almost exactly as they entered it.
Amber (Brynne Barnard) is especially stuck, as a mother to three kids, struggling to juggle two jobs and an, at best, itinerant husband in Chris (Patrick TJ Kelly), while also planning her daughter’s eighth birthday party. Her mother Laura (Barbara Figgins) helps out from time to time, but never misses a chance to criticize Amber’s routines. Chris is low on work shifts at a local bar; he is renovating their house with his brother Jim (Kevin D’Ambrosio), whose terse conversations with Amber only seem to deepen her growing despair at ever having a better, happy life. And when the electric bill goes unpaid, Amber seems to be the only one who cares to address the issue.
Director Georgette Verdin leans into the malaise and intense realism of Schwend’s script. Kerry Chipman’s lived-in and precise kitchen set has a working fridge and a working sink, from what I could tell. The creation of an entire bag-full of peanut butter sandwiches and the fixing of a smashed-up birthday cake are the largest bits of stage business we see. There is nothing heightened about the deadened conversations the characters hold with one another about bills, and the circumstances are as recognizable as one’s own last set of bills coming due. But I found myself wishing for a little more surprise in Verdin’s direction. The continually monotone colors she encourages in her performers don’t allow them to build much tension within scenes, with the exception of Kevin D’Ambrosio’s word-painting monologue near the end of the play. The lack of intensity or transformation makes sense, in that these characters are always living on the edge, and have possibly gotten used to feeling behind. But the continuously slow pacing and measured tones employed make it hard to suss out just what Amber deeply and truly wants.
Perhaps some of that malaise comes from Schwend’s script. She allows Amber little opportunity to choose a different sort of life than the one she shares with her husband; she doesn’t dare to dream of one, either. Barnard’s performance of held-in frustration is transparent and heartbreaking. But without a stronger sense of connection to other people onstage — particularly D’Ambrosio — it is hard to find a rooting interest in Amber’s problems. Yes, her problems are shared by generation after generation of people in this country, and she matters solely as a human being in the world. So we should want to see her problems solved. But the play, at times, feels like an exploration of misery for misery’s sake.
I left the theater wishing I knew what exactly Schwend wanted me to do with her minimalist story. Observation of a marginalized group has value. But observation alone does not allow for automatic engagement, and may even foster rejection upon reflection.
DIE RATING:d6 — “Has Some Merit”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: The intense realism of poverty takes its time and toll.
Company: Interrobang Theatre Project
Venue: Rivendell Theatre (5779 N Ridge Ave)