Utility shows the high cost of living in quiet desperation | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Utility shows the high cost of living in quiet desperation

Emily Schwend's drama is a resonant portrait of life in the shadows of the American dream.


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Interrobang Theatre Project presents the midwest premiere of Emily Schwend's low-key, but surprisingly substantial drama about a working-class woman fighting like hell just to keep the lights on. Amber (a seething, world-weary Brynne Barnard) lets her deadbeat wandering husband, Chris (Patrick TJ Kelly), back into her life, but can never decide whether his presence makes life easier or harder. Chris's older brother, Jim (Kevin D'Ambrosio, carrying the emotional weight of the whole play), is always hovering around Amber's house, going out of his way to do her favors. Her mother, Laura (Barbara Figgins), helps out too, but charges a heavy premium, with sighs and side-eye at the smallest request.

The event around which the story revolves is an eight-year-old girl's birthday party, but its dramatic peak comes before the cake is brought out, when Jim awkwardly attempts to tell Amber how he feels about her. Schwend is very good at giving voice to characters who are barely verbal. The evident pain with which Jim struggles to express his emotions is the heart of the entire play. By keeping things bottled up, rather than exploding into melodrama or tragedy, the quiet desperation of these people is all the clearer.

According to the program, the play is set in east Texas, but the southern accents in this production fluctuated too much for me to peg it to any particular locale. It's the only false note in an otherwise-resonant portrait of family life deep in the shadows of the American dream. Georgette Verdin directed.   v

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