Utility shows us the heroic struggles of the lower middle class

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Evan Hanover.

Sometimes plays are intended to lift you out of your life and send you soaring into lives and places you’ve never been. Utility, presented in a Midwest premiere by Interrobang Theatre Project, is not such a play. I was about to write that it celebrates the life of a woman doing her level best to care for her family in horrible economic times, but the word “celebrate” didn’t seem quite right. It showcases Amber (Brynne Barnard), and there is a celebration going on (her daughter’s eighth birthday party is just offstage), but Amber’s life—constantly making food for kids, cleaning up, working at a fast food place to bring in money, dealing with a meandering husband—seems more one to survive than one to fete. That, however, is the point of Emily Schwend’s sensitive script: the country is full of Ambers, and we should laud them for all they do.

Exhausted and seemingly always thisclose to fraying or breaking down, though she never does, Amber is the quintessence of the hard-working woman whose life will never be the romantic dream she might once have imagined, but as long as she can keep her children’s lives afloat she can say she‘s doing something right. That is the point of the party: she can barely afford to throw a bash for her child, but it is the girl’s special day and she works herself to the bones for it. Somehow she and her seriously under-employed husband Chris (Patrick TJ Kelly) have managed to squeeze enough money together to buy the child a new bike, but Amber wants the day to be perfect. And the closest she comes to breaking down here is when her utility as a provider breaks down: when she accidentally drops the birthday cake she has bought from Walmart, or when she suddenly has to cope with losing all power in the house in the scalding Texas heat the night before the party, threatening the party itself. Her mother (Barbara Figgins), herself weighed down by the struggles of life, is there to remind her that children are adaptable; her brother-in-law Jim (a very sensitive man played by Kevin D’Ambrosio) is there to talk to when she needs him; and Chris himself, though not always reliable, spends the bulk of his life helping her to care for children that, as her mother reminds her, aren’t even his. But ultimately it is Amber’s responsibility to make sure everything is done, and it is an enervating one.

This is not a play where much of seeming importance happens. Rather, it is one that takes the time to show us the daily drudgery of Amber’s life: making sandwiches, cleaning floors, wrapping the small additional presents (a deck of cards, a pack of gum, etc.) that she bought just so her daughter will have more things to open, and doing the million other things that, to the children, appear to just “happen” around a house. It’s the kind of play that can take several minutes just to allow its main character to sit and smoke a cigarette in order to unwind after her hard day, and Barnard is the kind of actress who can make this kind of silent scene as full of meaning as any dialogue. It’s also the kind of play that doesn’t feel the need for some artificial resolution of the problems it presents: the only “happy ending” for Amber means the impending start of another day of the same thing.

Director Georgette Verdin treats this all with perfect compassion, allowing Amber the time to complete all of the chores she has to do and navigate her iffy marriage while acknowledging that nothing is never going to be enough. Verdin notes in the program that Amber reminds her of her own mother’s difficult daily grind. Like Amber’s kids (who never actually appear in the play), Verdin may not have understood all her mother did back when she was young, but now she is in position to honor her mother’s labor—and the labor of all of the anonymous women (and men) who struggle daily just to make ends meet—with this play. Perhaps “celebrate” isn’t a bad word after all; they deserve it.

Utility is an Interrobang Theatre Project production now playing at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge, Chicago, through May 4. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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