nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 17, 2012
"You and I were going to change the world together." "The world changed on its own." This quote that comes late in Arlene Hutton's Vacuum seems to perfectly define the plight that all of her characters face. Their lives have changed so quickly and they seem powerless to direct their course. Filled with great characters and very profound ethical undertones, Vacuum is a well-oiled, very professional machine that exceeds the expectations of what you can normally expect with the stripped-down nature of the New York International Fringe Festival.
Vacuum focuses on a scientist, Gray Campbell, who has made a breakthrough discovery that may very well be the cure for cancer. His technique effectively reduces, or vacuums, the space between the atoms in tumors, shrinking them down until they basically no longer exist. Gray has been flown out to the secluded desert ranch of Fermoso, a company that specializes in anti-aging products, for mysterious reasons. Just as mysteriously, they've also asked for his wife, Amelia, to come out. Amelia was once Gray's equal in their field until she took a tragic fall down the stairs that effectively wiped out her memory.
Even in light of this revolutionary new discovery, the Campbells are falling apart. Gray is drowning under debt and his marriage with Amelia has hit a rough patch because he can't quite come to terms that his wife is now someone other than the brilliant scientist he fell in love with. But Jonathan Hemminger, the head of Fermoso, is about to make Gray an offer that will completely change their lives—but it may force Gray to compromise his ethics and throw away the more altruistic use of his technique.
Hutton's script is very clever and debates quite a few weighty topics. It's the ultimate money vs. the greater good decision. Is it worth losing an opportunity to live comfortably for the rest of your life, to make sure that the technique you've created is used in the right way? It also delves into the very fragile economy of the health care system. At one point Amelia says that the desert is a very fragile ecosystem, so you don't pick wild flowers—it can throw everything off. Jonathan points out something very similar about healthcare—the system thrives on disease being there. If you cure cancer, cancer centers close, jobs will be lost, the industry loses tons of money, and imbalances the economy. So do you save all of these lives, effectively ruining many others? It sounds callous but it makes you consider. The idea of the "fragile ecosystem" lives in every piece of the play. Hutton's characters have all been diverted from their paths in life, their grand aspirations, by very little events; no one is where they thought they were going to be.
The entire cast, aided by Chris Goutman's strong direction, does a fantastic job bringing this strong script to life. Dana Brooke's Amelia has a childish wonder that masks the deeper understanding and knowledge that is trapped right under the surface due to her accident. Chris Stack, as Gray, works perfectly with Brooke—his condescending tone when speaking to her makes her plight all the more sad, but Stack does it in a way where you understand he just doesn't know how to connect anymore, and he's trying his damnedest to make it work. David Arrow gives Jonathan the perfect amount of ruthlessness, mixed with an ignorance of just how inconsiderate he can be of others as he plows ahead with business.
Most impressive to me was Josh Smiths sleek set design. Its scale and quality are much stronger than many shows that have residence in a theatre for a couple weeks. It's almost unbelievable how great it looks given the setup and time limitations of the Fringe (or any large festival)—it adds a level of professionalism to a production whose actors and writer have already set a very high bar.
The Journey Company (the producing body for Vacuum) holds the distinction of having the first FringeNYC show to transfer off-Broadway (Last Train to Nibroc, also by Arlene Hutton); and it's no surprise if Vacuum is any indication of the quality of their work. Vacuum is an intriguing premise, with a lot of flawed humanity at its heart. And while every character faces difficult decisions while trying to catch up with their quickly changing lives, the decision to see this show should be an easy one.