The American playwright Emily Schwend’s award winning play Utility arrives at the Orange Tree Theatre with direction by Caitlin McLeod. Set in East Texas, yellow dusty light fills the space and the sound of crickets echo through the auditorium. Designed by Max Johns, the stage has been transformed into a cramped kitchen that has been covered in white plastic dust sheets, with cabinets filled with soup cans, bags of cornflower and boxes of open cornflakes.
It becomes evident from the opening scene that Chris (Robert Lonsdale) and Amber (Roybn Addison) are separated, however can Chris be given a second chance? As he explains, “he has kicked the pills” and this time he wants to make amends with his family and bring them back to their home.
Schwend brings to light the relentless strains of living in a capitalist society today, where every hour of the day is used to keep the family afloat. Grappling with two jobs, kids to feed and a house to run, Amber is too tired to even care if her husband is being disloyal. Chris comes across as a charming man who tries to help Amber with the everyday chores, though you cannot help thinking that if she was not there, the family would fall apart, bills would not be paid and they probably would have been evicted from their home.
The question of taking ‘responsibility’ filters through the scenes. What are the sacrifices you have to make in life and the choices you have to let go of? Though Amber does not cry for help, she is a portrait of resilience who will not allow herself to break; if she does, her life would crumble from beneath her feet.
There are moments within the piece when Addison subtly reveals Amber’s vulnerability and that underneath she is actually a rather fragile woman. Dark shadows and glazed eyes, she frantically runs in and out of the space with heavy shopping and presents to wrap. It is her daughter’s birthday party and she wants to show everyone she does things properly and that she has high standards. Words fly, prickly remarks are made and sarcastic jabs are given. What seems on the surface as small, insignificant worries can in actual fact be painful and physiologically destructive. Everything feels an effort. Even forgetting plastic cups for the party turns into an agonising argument.
Jim (Matt Sutton) gives a brilliant performance as Chris’s brother. Slow and deliberate, he talks of the past, reminding Amber of her youth. A time when they were quizzical, when they wanted to hear each other’s stories, to laugh at each other and to be open. As the party begins, with smashed cakes and white towers of peanut butter sandwiches, Amber tells Chris “balloons are supposed to fly in the air not sit in a heap”. Maybe she is referring to herself here, as she continues to struggle to find any energy or hope in her life.
Utility is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 7 July
Photo: Helen Murray