The rawness typical of productions by The Amoralists simmers below the surface in the tense summertime drama Utility, now at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater until Feb. 20. Intensely acted under smooth direction by Jay Stull, the sharply realistic script centers on the dingy kitchen of a poor working family in East Texas. Amber (a magnificently acidic Vanessa Vache) very reluctantly takes back her husband Chris (James Kautz), and the pair moves back into their water-damaged house along with the three children she’s been caring for on her own.
Playwright Emily Schwend draws on typical family-drama elements to illuminate unusual personalities. Ne’er-do-well Chris is genuinely sorry for whatever he did to hurt or disappoint Amber. He also really loves the kids, even though the eight-year-old girl whose looming birthday party focuses the action is Amber’s from a previous relationship. A slow opening prologue shows him insistently persuading Amber to give the family unit another chance, promising to complete the repairs of the house with the help of his taciturn brother Jim (Alex Grubbs).
In a neat reversal of the Peanuts method, we never see the children. There’s no need; their presence is everywhere: in the constant haggling over rides and scheduling; in the pile of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the big birthday cake; in the endless plastic WalMart bags; and in the main birthday gift, a shiny-new pink bicycle.
Amber’s sarcastic mother Laura (Melissa Hurst) is dumbfounded by Amber’s choice of a plastic hamburger as a small additional gift.
LAURA: What is she gonna do with a plastic hamburger?
AMBER: It’s got a sucker thing on it. You can stick it on like. The fridge or whatever. The bathtub.
LAURA: Well, what’s she gonna do with a hamburger sucker?
AMBER: I don’t know, Mom. She’s gonna stick it on things. I wanted to have some stuff for her to open up.
Lividly real, Vache keeps us locked into Amber despite Amber’s consistent, mournful bitterness that would exasperate anyone in real life. (I found myself wondering why Chris wanted their reunion so badly, however sick he may have been of sleeping on Jim’s couch.) Sure, Amber has plenty to be bitter about: a philandering husband; a mother who’s also bitter, if in a funnier way; having to work herself to the bone to keep the kids fed and the lights on, since the work-averse Chris can only find occasional bartending shifts. This is a family just hanging on, who must cancel a $20-an-hour party clown because his three-hour minimum puts his cost beyond reach.
Then, absentminded Chris’s forgetfulness leads to a minor disaster that threatens to bring things to a crisis. Except it doesn’t. Schwend takes the road less traveled. Amber keeps burning, flaring up but never exploding. Unexpectedly, it’s a revelation by the till-then nearly-silent Jim that gives her a little badly-needed emotional breathing room to mourn her gone younger self.
Schwend is marvelous at depicting the quotidian details that harass struggling families. When Laura brings over the new bike, we hear an annoyed Amber offstage wanting to know how her mother had gotten it into the back seat. Laura complains passive-aggressively that the iced tea Amber serves her isn’t sweet enough: “It’s like chewing on a tea leaf.” Chris curses at a party balloon he’s having troubling tying up, even as he sits amid a big pile of already successfully inflated balloons. Jim, having just completed drywalling the kids’ flooded bedroom purely as a favor to his brother’s family, tracks plaster on the kitchen floor, infuriating Amber, who can only hint at expressing the gratitude we can see that she feels. Most attempts at moments of real human connection fizzle – as they often do in real life, especially under financial stress.
Plot-wise very little happens. Now and then I found myself wanting or expecting more action. The pleasure, and the accomplishment, lie in the revelation of character through drawled dialogue and dusty situations that feel raw and real. And Vache’s Amber is sure to prove one of the standout performances of the year.
Amid a fine overall creative effort, Kate Noll’s set stands out too, a greyed-out kitchen that looks baked by the sun. The world of this damaged family feels all too real, both emotionally and physically. Utility runs until Feb. 20. Catch it while you can. For tickets visit OvationTix or call 866-811-4111.