In one powerful and sharply performed monologue, Emily Schwend’s new play, Utility, shines. A previously reserved character, suddenly starts to tell a personal story of the past. Schwend’s writing is subtle and delicate, and performer Alex Grubbs delivers every nuance with tiny, specific brush strokes. His is a breakout performance and the kind that shakes you because it presents craft and art woven together so tenderly you can’t separate one from the other. Grubbs purses his lips and a wave of unspoken emotion feels on the precipice of revealing itself. You inhale fearing your breath might tip the balance.
Unfortunately, not every interaction in Schwend’s play is as precisely balanced as this brilliant scene. Schwend’s appreciation and dedication to unexamined moments in ordinary lives proves she has an eye for subtlety. Her last outing in New York, The Other Thing, toyed with audience expectation in a flashier and more malevolent way. Utility shows her shifting gears to explore the role of women in a very different context than The Other Thing (yet still looking at issues of feminism and inequity in society). Yet her approach in Utility toys with the unexpressed more.
Schwend remains a writer to watch. There’s something far too intriguing in what she does to miss her work even if I’ve had some reservations about her productions.
In Utility, Schwend turns everything inwards and explores the life of a couple barely keeping their heads above water. Chris (James Kautz) begs his wife to move back home. They are always off-again/on-again but he believes they are better together than they are apart. Seemingly too tired to argue the point anymore Amber (Vanessa Vache) acquiesces. With the help of her mother (Melissa Hurst) and her brother-in-law Jim (Grubbs) we watch this family try to work together to throw a simple birthday party for Amber’s daughter.
We find ourselves squarely in Wal-Mart America – where every paycheck counts and a cancelled shift at work puts families on the edge of losing everything. These are hard-working people doing their best and yet they are scarcely getting by.
In Utility, everyone is flawed in some way. Amber is flinty, frustrated, and just dog-tired from working two jobs. Chris is optimistic and cheery with not a single reason to be. He is always hoping he’ll pick up more hours at the bar he works at but rarely scores them. He always seems to forget to do something important even if Amber has asked him to do it. Jim says only as much as needs to but he’s always there to lend a helping hand to Amber and Chris. For every jovial, messy bit of Chris, Jim is taciturn and tidy.
In fact it is Jim’s low-register, mumbled “ahhh-right”-s and verbal minimalism that provide much of the play’s humor. Every “conversation” with him feels like a workout to try to get two words out of him together. So when Grubbs launches into Jim’s garrulous monologue with a finely painted story still authentically within his vernacular it’s a galvanizing moment.
Schwend carefully brings us to this juncture having filled much of the play with quotidian tasks and swaths of silence. But one wishes all this silence had a stronger presence. Jay Stull directs and he’s done great work with showier material (I’m a particular fan of his production of Enter at Forest Lawn). But with the intricate performance lacework that Schwend’s script demands, the cast and director really have to make every moment count. Someone needs to be generating energy and a vibrating undercurrent of emotion even if no one is saying a thing. Here, the actors hold on these moments of silence but the meaning plays a bit too faint. The characters are operating on multiple levels – going about their monotonous daily lives while there is ache, sadness, desire, and heartbreak underneath it all. But we do not always get to see that secondary layer in all the performances, all of the time. So the stillness can feel lethargic at times which belies the careful work that Schwend is doing.
Utility is on at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Click here for more of their programme and tickets.