Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.
Pictured: Brynne Barnard. Photo by Evan Hanover.
By Elizabeth Ellis
At several points in Interrobang Theatre Project’s excellent production of Emily Schwind’s thoughtful and heartfelt UTILITY, we see Amber, the protagonist, stealing a few moments alone in her kitchen, smoking a cigarette. Though the scenes are silent, we know this woman and we know everything that she’s thinking about, hoping for, wishing for. We see far more than the person we pass by countless times at the grocery store, the gas station, the school pickup line – we see the complexity of the wife, the daughter, the mother, the woman who is just trying to get a little break from the neverending daily struggle that is life for the working poor in this country.
Amber (the superb Brynne Barnard) lives in small-town Texas and would love a breather: between working two jobs, maintaining a clean house, paying the bills, and making a nice birthday party for her young daughter, she barely has time to think. Her husband, the well-intended Chris (the wonderful Patrick TJ Kelly) often falls short, and hasn’t always behaved the most responsibly, but he truly loves Amber and their children and wants to keep their family together. Chris’ older brother Jim (the quiet and powerful Kevin D’Ambrosio) helps Amber and Chris fix up their home, and Amber’s mother, Laura (the terrific Barbara Figgins) offers help, but always with a questioning eye. Amber also deals with extra pressures on top of her daily constantly shifting burden: Chris engages in a questionable texting relationship with a coworker; he misses making a crucial payment on their electric bill, which sets in motion multiple problems; Jim’s presence in their home makes Amber more than a little uncomfortable; and Laura has thoughts on how Amber can do everything better.
Director Georgette Verdin shows great sensitivity towards both her actors and their characters. It would be very easy to let Chris slide into being an absolute loser, or Amber drift into being harsh and judgmental, but Verdin keeps the actors truthful, which makes them all the more vulnerable, and watchable. Brynne Barnard fills every moment with energy, and her cascading emotions are visible in every look. Patrick TJ Kelly brings an appealing warmth and charm to Chris, while Kevin D’Ambrosio’s Jim shows a depth of feeling that surprises Amber. Barbara Figgins’ Laura (immediately recognizable in the Texas grandma uniform of big sparkly T-shirt/capri pants/shiny sandals), instead of being loud and domineering, shows a lovely softness and care for her daughter when Amber nears her breaking point. Kerry Chipman’s set and Michelle E. Benda’s lighting design nail the simple small town aesthetic, as do Melissa Perkins’ costumes.
A play like UTILITY could be easily missed because it’s a slice of daily life for many people, with simple themes and quiet revelations. To overlook this play, however, would be a mistake – it gives us insight into a sizable segment of America that seems unremarkable, but is actually full of dreams, heart, and humanity.
UTILITY runs through May 4. For more information