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Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Vanessa Vache and James Kautz
Photo by Russ Rowland

Details that pile up in real time paint a distressingly convincing portrait of a physically and emotionally drained East Texas woman for whom the American dream is as elusive as a unicorn, in the Amoralists' production of Emily Schwend's Utility at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

Amber (Vanessa Vache), in her early 30s, is worn to the nub trying to raise three children while holding down two low-level jobs that never seem to bring in enough money to make ends meet. At the start of the play, she is considering reuniting with her unsteady good-old-boy husband, Chris (James Kautz), more to escape camping out in her mother's living room than from any expectation that Chris is ready to behave like a responsible adult.

Allowing herself to be swayed by Chris's earnest promises to toe the line, Amber moves with him into their old fixer-upper of a house. Chris does pitch in with the kids and the chores, but he is not consistently reliable, works only sporadically, and often neglects to take care of things. Predictably, he fails to make a token minimal payment to the electric company, and the power goes off just as Amber is getting ready to throw a birthday party for her eight-year-old daughter.

The playwright has done a masterful job in creating an atmosphere of tension that threatens to crush Amber through the daily demands of her life. The details are filled in as we watch her fixing the children's lunches to take to school, hauling in the groceries, washing the dishes, cleaning the floor, and getting things ready for the birthday party, including wrapping small, inexpensive gifts for her daughter while her mother sits with her and harps on about how lucky she is to have Chris back in her life.

Yet despite the occasional outburst of frustration ("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"), Amber is not entirely on her own. Her irritating mother Laura (Melissa Hurst), who is really not any better off than her daughter, is still around to lend a hand, even offering to scrape together money she can ill afford in order to get the electricity turned back on. Also hanging around in the background is Chris's older brother Jim (Alex Grubbs), who, in his own quiet way, shows he has a kind and caring heart. Whether Amber will be able to see that her mother, Jim, and even Chris are on her side becomes crucial in how she deals with the seemingly endless drudgery that defines her world. In the end, that is as good as it gets.

Under Jay Stull's direction, the cast does an excellent job in delineating the characters and their stressed-out lives. But the backbone of the production rests with the compelling portrayal of Amber by Ms. Vache, who allows us to see both the external strife and the internal struggle of a woman doing everything she can to keep the wolves at bay.

Through February 20
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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