When is the last time a major national playwright had Tricounty Area connections? When is the last time a critically praised New York play was set in the Tricounty area? So far as I know, the answer to both questions is never—until now.
The playwright is Abe Koogler, whose parents have been living in Galisteo and Eldorado. The play is “Fulfillment Center,” which opened Friday night at the Cell Theater in Albuquerque for a three-week run. The play closed only on July 16 at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York.
The New York Times called it “quietly shattering…steeped in a luminous and illuminating empathy that feels both uncommon and essential right now.”
The one-act, four-character drama is laid in an unnamed community an hour from Albuquerque. Many scenes describe the hardness of New Mexico’s land, without grass or trees or even visible people, and the harshness of the financial and emotional insecurity of life in New Mexico—what one character calls “a nightmare desert.”
“It’s so goddamn quiet in New Mexico,” a displaced New Yorker complains, “with all those adobe houses, and I actually saw a tumbleweed.”
“Maybe here we’ll feel totally free,” another New Yorker rejoins, but he clearly lacks conviction.
“The beggars are driving me crazy,” whines a woman who, ironically, is herself homeless and living in a tent pitched in a parking lot.
One scene takes place in an unnamed sculpture garden, which must be the Alan Houser gallery near Cerrillos, whose famous monoliths are dismissed in the play as “cold.”
A purple-lit ribbon in the background symbolically renders the skyline of the Sandia Mountains, while a bare stage with no set and almost no props suggests the emotional and geographical desert of New Mexico.
The four characters struggle for connections, with each other and with themselves. Each in his or her way is lost. At the risk of a spoiler, I will add that three of the characters finally find a slender thread of hope to hang onto.
The title is a play on words. The fulfillment center is a giant warehouse where 10,000 orders a day are processed and delivered to customers. It is also a term of irony, for in the community that revolves around the fulfillment center, the thing that is most lacking is fulfillment.
The Fusion production at the Cell leans heavily on the company’s regulars, including director Jacqueline Reid and actors Bruce Holmes, Laurie Thomas and James Louis Wagner. The fourth member of the cast, Lillie Richardson, a Florida native, is new to Albuquerque but has 25 years of professional experience in Arizona, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
The acting is of the highest quality, showing great depth as the characters gradually move away from superficial social encounters to expose the underside of survival on the knife edge of total despair.
The four characters are about as different as four people can be, yet what they have in common is what brought them to New Mexico—a search for fulfillment, a quality that has previously eluded all of them.
Wagner is Alex, a young graduate of New York University who has failed at his previous job and is desperately hoping to succeed as a middle-management supervisor at the fulfillment center.
Richardson is Madeleine, an upper crust New Yorker who reluctantly joins her tenuous boyfriend Alex in New Mexico.
Thomas is Susan, a homeless, fragile, elderly roadie and sometime singer who convinces soft-hearted Alex to hire her as a manual laborer at the fulfillment center.
After Alex finally fires Susan, he muses unexpectedly, “I felt really empowered,” and his girlfriend rejoins, “I’m proud of you.” It’s one of the strangest moments in a strange play.
Holmes is John, who evolves from a gentle teetotaler who sleeps in his truck to a hulking, threatening presence in the lives of both of the women. “I’m 42,” he confesses, “I’m the oldest I’ve ever been.”
Koogler’s previous plays include “Advance Man,” “Blue Skies Process” and “Kill Floor,” which premiered at the Lincoln Center in New York two years ago. An alumnus of Juilliard’s Playwright Program, he is a University of Texas-Austin Michener Fellow and won the Kennedy Center’s Paula Vogel Award.
“Fulfillment Center” continues at the Cell Theater, 700 1st St. NW in downtown Albuquerque through Nov 18, with a Nov. 17 pay-what-you-will performance at the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque. For tickets or information go to fusionnm.org or call 505-766-9412.
The last words in “Fulfillment Center” are “I need you”—a confession, a prayer, an admonition and, strangely, a thin ray of hope in the midst of the desert.