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February 8, 2016
Review: Utility
Vanessa Vache as Amber and Alex Grubbs as Jim in UTILITY. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.
Vanessa Vache as Amber and Alex Grubbs as Jim in UTILITY. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.

In the Amoralists' Utility, written by Emily Schwend and directed by Jay Stull at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, life is neither cruel nor glamorous. Days are merely an accumulation of hours that must be waded through so we can wake up and do it all over again. Work, clean, take care of the kids, work some more—these are the tedious tasks that make up the days in the life of Amber (Vanessa Vache), mother of three, and wife to Chris (James Kautz).

Amber has recently let Chris move back in, but she quickly realizes he’s more of a burden than anything. He rarely works, he’s one more body taking up space and eating food, and he’s most likely cheating on her. Her biggest resentment, though, stems from the fact that he’s never had to grow up, while she has sacrificed her whole self. “I gotta lose just about everything I used to like about myself just so I can keep shit even halfway decent for everyone else around here,” she says.

Amber is worried about throwing a nice enough birthday party for her daughter, she’s worried about paying the electric bill. She works at Wingstop. Her life has been reduced to mundane drudgery, but she still wraps a pack of gum so her daughter will have enough presents to open on her birthday. She is the type of woman who would work every spare hour of the day if it meant a few extra dollars for gas. The entire play takes place in the kitchen, where Amber is never not moving. She spins around so constantly—from washing dishes to making school lunches—that the infrequent moments when she sits still stand out like thunder. It's also a relief: we want her to rest.

Vanessa Vache as Amber and James Kautz as Chris. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.
Vanessa Vache as Amber and James Kautz as Chris. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.

The script is beautifully written by Emily Schwend, and there is one perfect moment where that can be especially savored. Amber is alone with her brother-in-law Jim (Alex Grubbs), a hardworking guy who says little, except for this one conversation where he reminds Amber of the first time they met, when they were both much younger. He takes Amber back, even if for an instant, to a time when she had only herself to worry about. Grubbs skillfully conveys deep emotion during this scene, while maintaining Jim’s taciturn manner.

The power of Utility is in its authenticity, which is aided by subtle details: the drone of traffic outside the screen door, crickets chirping beyond the open window. Amber’s mother, Laura, lives nearby and loves her daughter but mostly manages to exasperate her. Melissa Hurst strikes an even balance of being the mother who wants to help out, as long as too much isn’t asked of her. She’s compassionate, but only to an extent.

In their mission statement, the Amoralists say that they aim to present “work of no moral judgment,” and they certainly accomplish that in Utility. There was no lesson to be learned from Amber’s hard work and there was no light at the end of her tunnel. Watching it was like watching life as it often is--a lot of hard work with a fleeting minute or two to sit and reclaim yourself.

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Written by: Michele DeBella
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