“IT IS QUIET IN NEW MEXICO.”
In the opening moments of Abe Koogler’s “Fulfillment Center,” now playing in its Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, Suzan (Natalie West), a mid-60s job applicant desperate for a holiday-season position in a massive New Mexico facility, is being put through the paces by an impatient manager Alex (Jose Nateras). Suzan finds herself in familiar territory: trying to make a potential new boss like her. The former singer has drifted from one place to another after a recently failed relationship, hungry for any job that will put a few bucks in her pocket and allow her a better living situation than her car at a local campsite. Suzan is clearly not qualified, but the urgency in her voice and the quirky compassion she has for Alex wins him over.
Back at Alex’s home, Madeleine (Toya Turner) is moving in from New York, having recently closed the apartment they shared there. “It is quiet in New Mexico,” she says. Her online work will keep her busy and in touch with the real world, but she already knows that being an African-American woman will be challenging. And while she harbors some hope that Alex’s job is temporary and the two will pick up stakes again soon, she is shocked when he tells her there are conditions to that next step which add both to her anxiety and to Alex’s stress level. It seems a lot of insecurities have been bubbling up in their relationship and are now reaching a boil.
At the campsite, Suzan cozies up to another drifter John (Steve Schine), who seems more content to work on his car, rather than talking. That does not deter Suzan from the quest. Though he initially rejects her, she does not give up easily.
When an online conversation leads to a meeting between Madeleine and John, we begin to understand that they have more in common than an addiction to alcohol. Not unexpectedly, the sordid decisions made under the influence are steamy. But Koogler’s fine script has some surprises in store since these kinds of things almost always end poorly. The structure of the piece examines the many varied ways we communicate our own ambitions and expectations: through conversations, in online chat rooms, absorbed in our memories and in our reactions to those around us–both in the compassionate words being said and the unearthly rage that sometimes follows silence.
Director Jess McLeod has amassed a perfect ensemble. West, an AROT ensemble member, whose fine stage work has been seen of late in AROT’s “Traitor” and Chicago Shakespeare’s “Nell Gywnn,” delivers a captivating performance as a troubled woman facing the later years of life alone. Even as West cleverly maneuvers Koogler’s smart study of loneliness, her desperation palpable, she never misses the wry and endearing humor that lies just below the surface. Schine plays John on the edge which fills the darker margins of the story. Turner is compelling in a multi-faceted role and connects well with Nateras as the young couple with the most to lose.
In the end, we all seek fulfillment in everything we do. The benefit of our choices and the relationships we make is not always up to us. Despite our feeling of satisfaction for a job well done, it is often not enough in the eyes of others, whose own level of fulfillment may not be realized. So, perhaps the point is, when all else fails, accept the reality that the road to true fulfillment has many paths along the way. No matter which one you choose, being truthful, compassionate and understanding will get you a long way every time.
A RED ORCHID THEATRE
through March 24th
1531 N Wells Street
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