Wage labor

Conflicts between classes in PSC's Augusta
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 9, 2007
TEAMWORK: Bridges the gap, but can't heal everything.

“There’s a difference between people who work for people,” Jimmy says grandly to Claire, “and people who people work for.” Naturally, Jimmy (Charlie Kevin) is a manager. He’s a lechy low-level “executive” in a national cleaning service, and has just been transferred for the nth time in his career, this time to a small town in coastal Maine. The women who work for him, long-time maid Molly (Rae C. Wright) and the younger rebel Claire (Sally Wood, well-known to Monmouth audiences), do not suffer him gladly. They have enough to deal with — treacherous finances, helpless men to support — without hearing an insecure lower-management tool in a brown suit and a mint-green shirt talk about the PATH to success (Punctuality, Attitude, Teamwork, Humor). Class issues clash even more than Jimmy’s outfits when Portland Stage Company’s insouciant last show of the season, Richard Dresser’s Augusta, goes up to the strains of Dylan’s “Serve Somebody.”

Molly and Claire are assigned to work as a team, under the team-leadership of Molly, in a gorgeous house by the sea, the summer residence of Mrs. Townsend. Anita Stewart’s set gives us an elegant depiction of a room in this house, with a dim and lovely suggestion of an ocean view, then revolves to contrast it with the seedy bareness of Jimmy’s office, with its sad mass-issue plaques and bowl of dusty apples. Framing these sets are large prints of seascape paintings, as one-sidedly lyrical as Mrs. Townsend’s journal descriptions (which Molly and Claire sneak into) of her two picturesque Maine cleaning “girls.” Some clear lines of conflict are established straight off: locals vs. outsiders, poor vs. wealthy, workers vs. management.

As the two women, Wright and Wood play well together; Molly has a wry, knowing restraint to Claire’s irrepressible ambition. Their dynamics morph back and forth realistically from tension to cackling, candid rapport, as the job and Jimmy alternately come between them and unite them. Claire has aspirations to management, and, egged on by Jimmy’s big talk and barely veiled horniness, tries to count on him to get ahead. Wood makes bright and clarion work of Claire’s learning curve, while Wright’s Molly is quietly rich in complexity.

In the plummy and difficult role of Jimmy, Kevin must deliver increasingly outrageous testimonies to the manager’s ignorance and insensitivity, while keeping him just this side of caricature. Despite very audible audience responses to Jimmy’s personality flaws — groans, outright guffaws — Kevin’s even greater success is that Jimmy is not just infuriating, and not just laughable: he’s also deeply pitiable, in some ways much more a victim of the corporate culture than either Molly or Claire. He has subsumed his identity in this meaningless management world, and although we suspect he suspects the tragedy of this, he doesn’t quite have the balls to let himself recognize it.

Augusta’s two plucky women, on the other hand, know themselves and learn other people pretty fast. Refreshingly irreverent, Dresser’s comedy takes their social and economic plight with a light touch, a careening sense of humor, and a wily, unapologetic bent for the underclass. (And PSC’s Playnotes, always good, are particularly worth purchasing this time, with sections on minimum-wage work, the “American Dream,” radical theatrical theorists Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal, and workplace “psychological manipulation” à la Wal-Mart.) At a certain point, Augusta suggests with roguish moxie, you’ve gotta serve yourself.

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Related: College boards, Play by play: April 9, 2010, Play by play: March 26, 2010, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Bertolt Brecht, Richard Dresser, Portland Performing Arts Center,  More more >
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