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Emily Schwend
Orange Tree Theatre

Matt Sutton as Jim, Robert Lonsdale as Chris and Robyn Addison as Amber Credit: Helen Murray
Robert Lonsdale as Chris and Robyn Addison as Amber Credit: Helen Murray
Robyn Addison as Amber and Robert Lonsdale as Chris Credit: Helen Murray
Robyn Addison as Chris and Matt Sutton as Jim Credit: Helen Murray
Jackie Clune as Laura Credit: Helen Murray

In an East Texas backwater where work is hard to come by, Amber and Chris get back together in their up and down relationship. After months with her and their kids living in her mother’s sitting room and he sleeping on his brother’s couch, he’s started to do up their old flooded home and they move in.

While Amber is holding down two jobs to (almost) make things meet, Chris gets spasmodic shifts in a bar but doesn't seem to be looking too hard for more work. He argues that staying at home with their two boys and daughter saves on childcare. It looks as though he had a drug problem for he tells her he’s a different man, that he’s kicked the pills now.

Emily Schwend’s play, which won the 2016 Yale Drama Series playwriting competition, isn’t about drugs, it’s about survival, about lives in which not registering for school lunches by the right date or forgetting to pay the electricity bill can have serious consequences.

Chris isn’t a bad guy, he loves his children. Amber’s mum Laura reckons he’s a good thing, he does a lot about the place, but it is Amber who works hard to support them. She’s worn out but determined that her daughter Janie shall have a proper eighth birthday party; they’ve invited the whole of her school class plus some parents and neighbours.

She comes home loaded with foodstuffs and knickknacks from Wal-Mart so that there will be lots of little things to unwrap. She’s bought a birthday cake and now, as she unpacks this, she drops it. What was meant to be special is ruined and life seems to be crumbling around her, for that’s just the first disaster.

Though the Orange Tree set doesn’t entirely convince me it is in Texas, the proximity of the performance helps make this feel a very real picture of the struggle to keep going in working class America, especially in a world with today’s expectations. Such a fuss for a birthday: Laura recalls taking Amber and her brother to the movies for their birthday treat and only once at that. It would be easy to overplay the comic side of this well-meaning mother, offering as much criticism as assistance than help, but Jackie Clune balances it carefully.

Robyn Addison’s Amber is no dreary drudge;, though worn out, she is determined, you can still see the woman whom brother-in-law Jim remembers, recalling their first meeting in a scene (beautifully played by Matt Sutton) that reveals how much he still cares for her. There are times when you do want to kick husband Chris but, though he may sometimes seem feckless, Robert Lonsdale also makes you like him: he’s not a good manager but he is caring; easy-going rather than ambitious.

Director Caitlin McLeod delivers a production that captures the strain of the long hours from getting up at five to start on your children’s school lunches before you off on an early shift until your husband comes home after the bars close, but it is never tedious because Amber keeps going. It may seem inconsistent that, though they literally don’t have $25 in their pockets, they somehow still manage to buy things but people do really live that way. This is a picture of one family that can stand for many.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton