'Utility' presents life in subtlety and silence at Interrobang Theatre Project
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Emily Schwend's Utility is an interesting choice for Interrobang Theatre Project's final show of the 2018-2019 season--not going out with a bang, but a rustle. Under the guise of artistic director Georgette Verdin, the selection chooses to focus on those whispers of tension and restrained eruptions of personal crises that arise throughout a day rather than one dramatic climax. Schwend weaves together multiple characters in their desperation for financial stability, familial belonging, and ultimately happiness, which all linger just out of reach.
At the intersection of broken promises and forever compromises is Amber, portrayed perfectly by ensemble member Brynne Barnard. She's the embodiment of the modern, working class woman: an essentially single parent of two, juggling two jobs, and practicing the minimum of self-care. Doing it all never seemed so difficult with assistance from a drifting, estranged partner (Patrick TJ Kelly) and a mother who comments more than she contributes (Barbara Figgins). Every glaze over of the eyes, steaming sigh, and mental recalculation she physically contemplates maximizes empathy for Amber's strife. And it's all in a day's work.
The physical setting serves as a metaphor for her story: a house half lived in, still recovering from water damage--a strong foundation that's in need of great repair to keep growing. Yet Amber and her family work around the space like the semi-sweet reality of instant coffee and Walmart sheet cake: "Not perfect, but ain't bad". Scenic design from Kerry L. Chipman oozes the set with suburbia providing exemplary details from the pastel colored, lettered key holder, to wooden paneled cabinets, to a kitchen light fixture reminiscent of one that hung in my grandmother's. It feels like a lived in home which is an atmosphere that can be difficult to establish with a built set.
In seeing plays nowadays that typically deal with intense conflict and heavy topics, this one chooses almost exclusively to center its action on the opposite. Amber is hell bent on making sure eight-year-old daughter, Janie, has the best birthday party. All her hopes for perfection roll out in a brightly tinted, magenta bike with magenta and turquoise tassels aka every young girl's dream on wheels. Although Amber is proud to have snuck it in as a surprise for the party, satisfaction always seems to disappear from her within minutes. "Wish I had a bow", she quips, never feeling she's done a good enough job.
The true story of Utility doesn't lie in its central plot, but everything surrounding it. It's told in its quickest, underlying, and quietest moments. It lies in Laura's, Amber's mother's, (Figgins) praise of Chris (Kelly) providing the bare minimum of household responsibilities whereas Amber who goes above and beyond remains unacknowledged. Or when Chris' brother, Jim, (Kevin D'Ambrosio) reminisces about sharing a cigarette with Amber when they were teenagers. Or when Amber near the end of the play sits in neither contemplation or confusion, but is merely present in what feels like a never ending period of darkness. These keepsake moments feel akin to ripples of reflection, always dipping those toes in without breaking through the surface.
Utility is a play whose actions feel like going through the motions. Every minute is spent painting a picture that isn't typically seen when we go to the theatre. There are silences that drag on, half baked conversations, and activities like wrapping presents or unloading groceries that aren't the most thrilling. While it may not be a play that feels like a pressure cooker, there's something admirable to see a story ripe with the common conflicts and mistakes that make it difficult to get up in the morning.