Stages

Review:  In Utility, a Working-Class Woman Holds Her Family and Herself Together

Barnard and Kelly as Amber and Chris. Photo by Evan Hanover.

Guest author review by Katie Priest

Reading Interrobang Theatre Project’s description of its new play, Utility by Emily Schwend, I was unsure whether I would be seeing a play with a compelling storyline, or whether the content would be trite, predictable and overdone. While the topic of America’s working poor has often been explored, Brynne Barnard’s performance as Amber saves the production with a convincing and thoughtful portrayal of a woman working to make ends meet and provide a good life for her family.

Directed by artistic director Georgette Verdin, the play is set in a small town in East Texas, a fact that would remain unclear if not for the characters’ southern accents. The strong mother-daughter relationship between Amber and Laura (played by Barbara Figgins), keeps the 100-minute running time from feeling too long, especially without an intermission. There is often still the underlying assumption in theater that women will be portrayed as weak and less significant than male characters, although this is starting to shift. The stage time given to the female characters and Amber’s strong female lead prove otherwise in Utility.

Interestingly, despite the strong dynamic between the two female characters, Laura actively defends Amber’s husband Chris (Patrick TJ Kelly), rather than her daughter. Chris is an arguably lazy character, although often well-intentioned. It’s unclear at first too why Laura seems less inclined to care for Chris’ brother, Jim (played by Kevin D’Ambrosio), who is helpful around the house and makes himself readily available for Amber’s 8-year-old daughter’s birthday party.

Barnard provides a depth to Amber as she struggles to provide a nurturing home for her children and hold together a difficult marriage and hold herself together as well. She’s working two jobs (Amber’s costume changes between scrubs and a black polo) and also works to plan her daughter’s birthday party. Amber struggles to maintain a balance, and begins to lose her self-worth amongst the arrangement of balloons, cake, presents and a hired clown. Amber represents many working-class women but stands out as an individual as she argues with Chris over the fact that the balloons are littering the floor rather than floating, as they should. When Amber drops the birthday cake, she feels like her life has come to an end, but Chris says that “the kids won’t care about the birthday cake.” Chris doesn’t necessarily have to care; his life is not wrapped up in his success as a father or even as a spouse, as his wife’s is. Amber seems to recognize and lament this, replying that it doesn’t matter if the kids don’t care, because she does. The marital relationship is slightly predictable, although the convincing performances from both characters to some extent make up for the script’s flaws.

Brynne Barnard’s characterization of Amber makes the play worth seeing alone, and the supporting roles are heartfelt and convincing. The scenery designed by Kerry L. Chipman and props by Adam Borchers are remarkable and draw the audience in to the low-income home before the actors set foot on stage—the dingy wallpaper, the plastic imitation-marble kitchen table, the used toys on the floor—all are purposeful and further the plot and the character’s struggle to make ends meet.

Utility, the conclusion of Interrobang Theatre Project’s ninth season, will run through May 4 at the Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. Tickets are $32 or $16 with an active student ID. Group discounts are available. More information can be found on Interrobang Theatre Project’s website.

Katie Priest recently returned home to Chicago after receiving her BA in English from the University of Washington in Seattle. She is eager to pursue her long-time passions of reading and writing through the exploration and review of the arts.

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