Steppenwolf’s The Fundamentals Exposes Dark Side of Corporate Life

Ensemble members Alan Wilder (Abe) and Alana Arenas (Millie) with Audrey Francis (Eliza). Photo by Michael Brosilow. Ensemble members Alan Wilder (Abe) and Alana Arenas (Millie) with Audrey Francis (Eliza). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The world premiere of The Fundamentals, Erika Sheffer's new play now running at Steppenwolf, offers a funny and sharp indictment of America's corporate culture. In Sheffer's play--which was commissioned by Steppenwolf and is directed by ensemble member Yasen Peyankov--Millie, a maid in an upscale Manhattan hotel, tries to climb the corporate ladder without losing the optimism that makes her so charming.

Millie's hopes to rise above her station as a housekeeper become more than just dreams when she gains damning information about a fellow co-worker. Spurred by her own aspirations, as well as her insecure family life, Millie begins to climb the corporate ladder by compromising her sense of loyalty to her peers. These decisions are largely rationalized by her sense of duty and understanding of what it means to be a "good employee," characteristics that are hilariously depicted in a series of internal corporate videos, projected by designer Stephan Mazurek.

As Millie, ensemble member Alana Arenas is charming and believable, portraying an honest mixture of ambition and conscientiousness while deftly navigating the play's twists and turns. Fellow ensemble members Caroline Neff and Alan Wilder are equally detailed in their performances, as are Armando Riesco and Audrey Francis. Wilder's endearing turn as Abe, a long-time hotel worker and mentor to Millie, is full of everyman charisma, and Wilder nails all his jokes with natural finesse.

Equally detailed is Collette Pollard's scenic design, full of bulletin boards, corporate notices, and an employee spotlight that become almost cringeworthy in their veracious encapsulation of an attempt at corporate morale building. That Natasha Dukich's costumes feel equally muted amongst the drab greys of steel and concrete is equally effective. Without sacrificing accuracy, the design team has created a dismal workspace, far outshone by just the interior of a luxurious service elevator that shepherds management up and away.

While Millie's moral descent (and corporate ascent) will likely be viewed by some as unscrupulous, Sheffer's script goes a long way to show the personal effects of these sacrifices, as well as establishing that Millie's hunger for success goes deeper than financial security or power. In Peyankov's staging, it is clear that Millie has become deeply frustrated by the lack of appreciation she has garnered caring for others. That she finds herself in the hospitality industry makes this fact doubly exasperating.

While an ending monologue seems to suggest that she does have qualms about the decisions she's made, by the time the play's 2 hours and 15 minutes are up, it's hard to argue that she wasn't partially justified in her decisions. Perhaps that lasting realization is the most telling gauge of The Fundamentals' success. For we, like Millie, have become entrenched in the corporate machine. And like any cog in a machine, we understand what it's like to yearn for validation..

The Fundamentals at Steppenwolf Theatre has been extended to December 31. It's staged in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday. Tickets for $20-89 are available online or by calling 312-335-1650.

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Brent Eickhoff

Brent Eickhoff is a Chicago-based director, writer, and educator. Brent has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., The Arc Theatre, The Public House Theatre, Something Marvelous, Whiskey Radio Hour, and The Burrowers. He is the Educational Coordinator for Silk Road Rising, and is a founder and co-artistic director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. While Brent has worked with a variety of Chicago theatre artists, he doesn't let that get in the way of writing unbiased reviews of any production he covers.