Review | FULFILLMENT CENTER at A Red Orchid Theatre

Review | FULFILLMENT CENTER at A Red Orchid Theatre

Pictured: Steve Schine and Natalie West. Photo by Mike Hari.

By Conor McShane

Last year, when Amazon came under fire for the inhumane conditions in its warehouses, where workers were denied bathroom breaks and forced to work long hours with no rest, the collective outrage spread far and wide. A corporation claiming massive profits was doing so on the backs of a workforce which was being denied basic human rights, without even the ability to unionize.

But while the backlash towards Amazon was deserved, it’s hard to deny that the consumer also had a hand in the problem. As online shopping continues to dominate the retail landscape, the unseen human cost of convenience becomes harder and harder to ignore. And while we’ve heard endless proclamations about the rise of automation and the death of the human workforce, we’re left to wonder: things being what they are, what’s the alternative?

Abe Koogler’s FULFILLMENT CENTER, presented in its Chicago premiere by the venerable storefront A Red Orchid Theatre, touches on this idea through its characters, each forced to live on the fringes in one way or another. The play begins with Suzan (Natalie West), a sort of Boomer burnout who never quite left the free and easy 70s, applying for a job on the floor of a “fulfillment center” for a large online retailer (while the company is never named, it’s easy to imagine it’s a thinly veiled take on Amazon) in the middle of New Mexico.

Despite her age and concerns about the job’s rigorous physical demands, she’s reluctantly hired by Alex (Jose Nateras), a business grad with designs on a cushy job at the company’s Seattle offices. Alex recently relocated from New York, followed by his longtime girlfriend Madeleine (Toya Turner), who quickly starts to go stir crazy working from home in the middle of nowhere, turning increasingly to the bottle for relief. Meanwhile, Suzan befriends a quiet loner named John (Steve Schine), living out of his car at a campground after being kicked out by his girlfriend. Before long, the pressure begins to mount for Alex, whose move to Seattle may be jeopardized by his team’s low fulfillment numbers, as Madeleine has an experimental fling with John, whose deeply internalized pain begins to cut through his surly exterior.

The ensemble, led by director Jess McLeod, is the play’s strongest asset. West, in particular, delivers a terrific performance, letting Suzan’s easygoing chipperness fall away to reveal deep pain both emotional and physical. Schine also lends pathos to John, someone who’s clearly suffering but lets his emotions out in deeply unhealthy ways, as in a late scene with Madeleine where sharing his feelings turns troublingly misogynist. We’re never quite sure if John might turn physically violent, but Schine treads the line between pity and fear nicely. Turner and Nateras’s couple have some unhealthy tendencies, and do strong work to make us root for them to succeed even as they each make plenty of bad choices.

However, despite the uniformly strong cast, the end result doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. The play has a number of strong moments both of awkward comedy and tense drama, but these never cohere into a dramatically satisfying whole. If we think of drama as a process in which characters undergo change; by the end, we and they are left in basically the same position as at the start.

Koogler’s script touches on a number of interesting subjects: the dehumanization of work controlled by strict performance metrics, isolation and the struggle to truly be heard, what it even means to lead a fulfilling life. But he’s never quite able to pull the play’s disparate threads together in a way that leaves the audience with any sense of fulfillment. This could be by design; none of these characters feel truly fulfilled in their lives, but the end result is a play that’s dramatically inert. There’s a lot to like in FULFILLMENT CENTER, but I couldn’t help feeling like we were missing something as the lights faded to black.

FULFILLMENT CENTER runs through March 24. For more information visit aredorchidtheatre.org.

About author

Conor McShane

Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.

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