The Mill at The Playwrights’ Center

Terry Hempleman, Amy MacDonald, Andy Rocco Kraft . Photo: Kevin McLaughlin

The Mill, a new play by International Falls, Minn., native Jeannine Coulombe presented at The Playwrights’ Center by The Workhaus Collective, looks at what it really means to live in a town that is dependent on one major industry and employer for its survival. The town’s history with its life support, a paper mill run by Boise, has been pocked with controversy, including strikes, union busting and violence. Its story has all the makings for intense drama: friendships suffered, families were divided and young people faced a changing hometown with confused emotions. This last point Coulombe addressed most effectively.

Rick (Andy Rocco Kraft) is home from college to spend the summer with his parents, Marty (Terry Hempleman) and Beth (Amy McDonald Morrison). His girlfriend, Callie (Katherine Moeller) took her old summer job back just to be home with him. The conflict for them is almost archetypal: the tug of the “the big world out there,” represented by the city (Duluth), versus the familiarity and loyalty for one’s hometown. Callie, who lives with her single mom, is ready for something more in life, but Rick is caught up in impending trouble at the mill, where his dad has worked for 36 years. The union will vote soon on whether or not they will support a planned expansion. The project is seen as a line in the sand with the union, a kind of with-us-or-against-us maneuver by the paper manufacturing giant.

 The action is set in Marty and Beth’s backyard, where Marty is trying to finish a gazebo for Beth “with a refrigerator for pop” by the 4th of July. This functions as a device to present the varying opinions among friends. Emotions flare up concerning the impending vote, oppressing them like the uncharacteristic June heat. Case (Eric Webster) is helping Marty with the gazebo. He’s a hothead and a redneck who feels compelled to “stand up for something,” but simply creates more trouble. Beth’s pal, Luce (Jodi Kellogg) helps Beth plant flowers while the two discuss the mill, the young people and dance around their differing feelings.

The drama that surely was inherent in the town’s larger story was, however, missing from this one – even with the entrance late in the play of a new neighbor, Ignacio (James Rodriguez) – one of the workers for the out-of-state construction company hired by the mill. The presence of these outsiders fuels the locals’ frustrations and brings the conflict to a head, but even then we only hear about it later. The play’s best moments are when we are actually in the moment – Rick finally opens up to Callie (in two different scenes) and Ignacio returns to Marty’s backyard with a gentle confrontation (although the scene following with Rick was superfluous).

This is a very capable cast, but Hempleman as the husband who mostly stuffs his feelings is simply wonderful. I grew up in a small Minnesota town, too, and I knew people just like the character Hempleman gave us. Kraft and Moeller were charming as the young couple, with a completely believable chemistry bubbling between them.

Generally, Coulombe’s play has the same backbone that holds up a small town, and she has nicely captured the language and rhythm that fits it. She’s been a little Minnesota-nice about the ugly side, though. There is a lot more passion available to her in this subject matter. The play runs through May 5. Recommended.

NOTE: The Workhaus Collective is a group of playwrights working in association with The Playwrights’ Center that brings to Twin Cities audiences the plays of its members. They pass around production duties in support of each others’ plays, which means that every play has the advantage of benefiting from the assistance of all. It’s a wonderful concept and – even better – it’s working.

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