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George Orwell begins his essay “My Country Right or Left” by stating, “Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present.” He suggests that books, films, and the fog of memory convince subsequent generations that their forbearers lived in times of continual drama and excitement. The fact that theatre likewise tends to distill and intensify lived experience makes Caitlin McLeod’s production of Emily Schwend’s Utility an interesting experiment: a slice-of-life play that forgoes emotional rollercoasters and intricate plotting in favour of presenting the unvarnished trials of a working class mother in east Texas. It is a pity that a work of such worthy intent, and featuring such fine performances, is narratively static, hamstrung by the “eventless-ness” of the present.
The play opens with a standoff. Estranged spouses Amber (Robyn Addison) and Chris (Robert Lonsdale) face each other across the stage, reliving a familiar argument. Chris believes the couple should reconcile; Amber resists. She is swayed, however, when the ne-er-do-well Chris informs her that he has been restoring their water-damaged house. The pair are soon reunited in less-than-blissful matrimony, contending with home repairs, children’s doctors’ appointments, and their daughter’s upcoming birthday party. Over-extended Amber wonders at the life she’s chosen, and the identity she’s lost to domestic drudgery.
The show’s performances are faultless. The actors inhabit their characters with ease; every exchange is emotionally authentic. Addison’s weary wife begins each statement expecting disappointment, and her scenes with her mother, Laura (Jackie Clune), crackle with a lifetime’s worth of frustration. Matt Sutton’s Jim communicates much while saying little. Schwend and McLeod are unafraid of silence on stage, and Amber’s moments of contemplation over an illicit cigarette are surprisingly effective in a medium in which absence of dialogue is typically disastrous. As a North American, I must also applaud designer Max Johns for populating his set with just the right commercial detritus, from Fruit Loops to WalMart bags.
Unfortunately, the solid performances and realistic speech–Schwend has a Tennessee Williams-like ability to render language as it is actually spoken–cannot compensate for a narratively flat play. The action marches toward the birthday party, but the collisions and disappointments along the way are minor, a sedimentary accumulation of things that don’t quite work out. Even the ostensible climax is a quiet recounting of a distant memory, wonderfully acted, but still just a blip in the inexorable progress of domestic routine. The effort to accurately portray the everyday is admirable, but does not make for interesting theatre. The prosaic is rarely poetic.
While Orwell is probably right that the past, present, and future are alike in their banality, Utility‘s stumbles suggest that faithfully representing the mundane is an inappropriate goal for theatre. Instead, the stage ought to heighten and magnify the real so that we can finally appreciate its facets.
- By Emily Schwend
- Directed by Caitlin McLeod
- Cast Includes: Robyn Addison, Robert Lonsdale, Matt Sutton, Jackie Clune
- Orange Tree Theatre
- Until 7 July 2018
- Time: 19:30 Mon-Sat.; Matinee: 14:30 Thurs & Sat.