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There are only three visible characters in Samuel D. Hunter’s play The Few. But the voices of many more hang in the air, left on an answering machine by lonely long-haul truckers seeking a connection in their disjointed world.
As The Few opens, a female newspaper editor named QZ is finishing up another issue. The newspaper, also named The Few, is targeted to long-haul truckers. QZ has found a profitable niche for the paper: personal ads. The play is set in the time before internet dating sites such as Match.com and e-Harmony ruled the matchmaking business.
The newspaper, which is really a newsletter, operates in a messy, doublewide trailer. Three friends started it years ago. One of them, Jim, was a trucker, who “started feeling like he didn’t exist, that he looked at people’s faces but didn’t see anything.”
The newspaper tries to help lonely hearts like his make a connection.
The original owner/editor, Bryan (played by American Players Theatre stalwart James Ridge), reappears after having disappeared four years earlier. He left just two days after Jim’s tragic death, and Jim’s 19-year-old nephew, Matthew (a spot-on performance by newcomer Mitch Bultman), has taken his place at the paper.
When Bryan reappears, dirty from hitchhiking his way back, he and QZ (Mary MacDonald Kerr) just stare at each other, not saying a word. He isn’t eager to explain why he left, or why he returned.
Ridge’s masterful performance is reminiscent of actor/playwright Sam Shepard. Perhaps that’s due to Ridge’s lanky looks and his slouchy, to-hell-with-it attitude. His Bryan is a far cry from some of the animated characters Ridge is known for, and to his credit, he pulls it off just as believably.
Mary MacDonald Kerr evinces the same laid-back style.
We learn that Bryan and QZ were lovers as well as business partners, and he left her behind to clean up a sizable debt. Kerr weaves her way brilliantly through QZ’s central conflict in the play: Does she want Bryan back in her life or not?
C. Michael Wright directs this delicately woven tale. He’s worked with Kerr and Ridge in several shows, and he obviously knows how to bring the best out of each.
In contrast to the somber QZ and Bryan, Matthew has the enthusiasm of a puppy. He’s idolized Bryan in his writing, and he was certain Bryan would return some day. Ever optimistic, Matthew thinks Bryan has returned to resume his position as editor, which QZ isn’t about to let happen.
Matthew sees the newspaper office as a sanctuary. He moved into an unused trailer on the property after his pill-popping mother and alcoholic, abusive father found out that Matthew came on to another boy at school. Playwright Hunter — who came out in a similar small town at about the same age as Matthew — wants to make the point it isn’t just long-haul truckers who feel as if they don’t have a place in the world.
In the story’s background, the phone line chatters with the voices of truckers trying to place personal ads. Their voices are uncertain. Sometimes they have to call several times before finding the courage to complete their mission.
They are reaching out to The Few, not knowing that, like them, the newspaper faces an uncertain future.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s The Few continues through March 19 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s intimate Studio Theatre. For tickets, go to milwaukeechambertheatre.com or call the box office at 414-291-7800.