Photo by Grace McC Photography
There is something inherently intriguing about a play that happens within a particular occupational setting, allowing us to experience the specific way people in various jobs deal with their tasks and each other. It provides an opportunity to peer into what makes people tick in a closed environment.
Millwood Outpost, now at Playwrights Local, puts six workers from an Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) crew in a one-room shed out in the boonies as they wait out an epic thunderstorm and gathering fogbank. As written by Tom Hayes, managing director of Playwrights Local, the 80 minute one-act succeeds in developing a tense atmosphere of impending doom, as the quotidian necessities of cleaning the little-used shed and killing time merge with a power blackout and some mystical storm-induced occurrences, such as a disembodied voice coming through the static of their intercom radio.
The first workers we meet are a family—an aging and disabled ODOT vet Dad (playwright Hayes) and his two college-student sons who are picking up some extra money: Laidback dutiful Zak (Quin Johnson) and nervous, chatty Nick (Zach Palumbo). While pre-senile Dad mumbles about the devil and rhapsodizes about the "good dry room" they are sheltering in, his boys fence with each other. Then Moon (August Scarpelli), another refugee from the storm enters and immediately starts ordering Nick around. Turns out, he's pissed that Nick reported on his co-workers about something they did wrong.
A bit later they're joined by the alpha males of the crew, Digger (Joe Milan) and Rollo (Sean Seibert). Digger asserts his dominance quickly and Rollo eventually steals Dad's bottle of MD-2020 to shares with the younger workers. There are hints that Dad's limp, supposedly due to an accident with a falling a tree branch, was perhaps not so accidental. But that ominous thread is abandoned quickly.
Despite generally strong performances, the production under the direction of Rachel Zake never hits the fast lane. With the storm raging outside and macho one-upmanship and generational conflicts simmering inside, the tension ratchets up.
Aside from their testosterone posturing, we are not brought fully inside the orange-vested, traffic-coned world of these men who work outdoors with cars zipping past at speeds that could easily maim or kill. We don't learn how they talk about their job, and about the drivers who glare at them through their windshields, irritated that their progress has been impeded by an ODOT crew for even a minute.
One of the few ODOT-specific references is when they find a large red bra under the cushion of Dad's ratty stuffed armchair. The guys immediately relate it to the red gore of deer entrails they have to scrape up off roadsides. And later, the bully boys torment Nick with the bra, making him put it on to humiliate him.
There are potentially interesting issues of sexism, homophobia, and bigotry that float under the surface, but they are never fully engaged dramatically. Although Hayes has a deft touch with dialog, he doesn't provide all the elements the play needs to make the most of this promising setup.
Ultimately, the major problem with Outpost is that the stakes are extremely low. None of the characters is risking anything important, which turns all the curious happenings into just so many feints and air punches. The play's disparate elements never come together, including the disembodied female voice rattling off random facts in a British accent, a ringing phone with no one on the other end, and a last-second, foggy, deus ex machina that feels more desperate than devastating.
Since 2015, Playwrights Local has pursued an admirable mission of producing locally written work. They show their commitment to dramatists working in northeast Ohio by offering writing workshops, free neighborhood performances and other related events.
Through April 2 at Playwrights Local, 397 E. 156 Street, Cleveland, playwrightslocal.org, 216-302-8856.