It oughta be the easiest thing in the world -- just come up with some reason why compelling, diametrically opposed characters have to stay locked up in a room, shake briskly and -- presto! -- you've got yourself a riveting evening of theater.
But I, who show you these scars, tell you that "easy" is the last way you'd to describe the process. Too often the characters are more points-of-view than fully rounded creations. And usually the device used to keep them stuck on stage is weak or just plain illogical.
I am very, very happy to say that West Virginia playwright Sean O'Leary has avoided almost all of the possible traps in his play Valu-Mart, receiving its local premiere at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.
O'Leary's play is set at a Wal-Mart-style low-price retail store; the characters are five employees locked in the break room awaiting interrogation by upper management concerning a recently lost key to a jewelry-display case.
The key turns out to be a bit of a McGuffin; Valu-Mart is by no means a who-took-it or thriller. It's is actually a character study, and a rumination on what it means to be part of a "community." The characters can all either remain isolated and hope the guilty party is caught, or they can band together and allow the thief to return the key to the group, which they'll then turn over to management. Plan B could mean they'll be fired, but they'll still have acted with more humanity than the bosses.
Wal-Mart has a documented history of racing toward the economic bottom, and using the poverty of its customers as an excuse to maintain the poverty-inducing wages of its workers, and O'Leary brings that to theatrical life. In Valu-Mart, the management pits one employee against the other to achieve its own end.
I worry that the above might make the show sound dry and preachy ... and nothing could be further from the truth. This is an immensely satisfying work of theater, and there's not a second you don't feel trapped in the break room with these richly drawn characters and questioning your own assumptions.
Pittsburgh Playwrights' Mark Clayton Southers has done two things: He's designed an amazing set, and he's assembled an amazing cast -- Tommy Lafitte, Kelly Marie McKenna, Rico Parker, Bill Dalzell, Genna Styles and Susan McGregor-Laine -- which he's directed with a sure hand toward the utterly naturalistic playing style absolutely essential for this truly remarkable play.
Valu-Mart continues through March 28. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or www.pghplaywrights.com