At Steppenwolf, a resourceful housekeeper chooses her path.
It's difficult to describe Erika Sheffer's The Fundamentals, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, without making it sound a little, well, dull. It's the story of a woman, not in crisis, but at a crossroads. Millie (Alena Arenas) likes her job, but she wants a promotion. Her husband, Lorenzo (Armando Riesco), is frustrating, but not abusive. Her daughter is healthy, her coworkers adore her, her life is more or less stable, but Millie wants something else. Something more. And to get that something more, Millie takes a look around and decides she needs to change herself. As she navigates the corporate ladder at the fictional Wellington chain of boutique hotels, she is faced with problems mundane and philosophical.
Just like the hotel succeeds on the backs of the employees who maintain it, The Fundamentals' success relies on the total commitment of the actors. The focus is on Millie, and Arenas plays her with appropriate control, letting her transformation occur at just the right pace, never revealing too much at once. As Millie's dissatisfied dreamer of a husband, Riesco makes a nice foil, and the pair have an unmissable chemistry. Millie shares a workspace with Abe (a wonderfully deflated Alan Wilder), her contented 60-year-old supervisor, whose desire to maintain his comfort level takes a dark turn. Working upstairs, recent college grad Stellan (Caroline Neff) sees her hotel position as a stopgap until her acting career takes off. As Stellan and Millie bond, Neff shows the same comfort with naturalism that she presented in Steppenwolf's recent production of Annie Baker's The Flick. Overseeing it all, corporate manager Eliza is played with caustic wit by Audrey Francis.
Visually, the play is spot-on. Scenic designer Collette Pollard has a flair for hyperrealistic, lived-in design, and the hotel breakroom where the majority of the play takes place is no exception. Together with lights by Lee Fiskness and sound by Rick Sims, the environment is perfect for the breezy naturalism of The Fundamentals. The details are lovely, but it would be nothing more than set dressing if the play didn't engage on an emotional level. Luckily, the play moves so deftly, and is carried so well by its actors, that it comes together marvelously. Guided by director Yasen Peyankov, each character is fully realized, so grounded in their physicality that their ticks seem innate — from Riesco fiddling with his pockets as Lorenzo to the way Francis, as Eliza, icily surveys every room she's in.
As a result of these performances, The Fundamentals never seems to lack stakes, even when dealing with workplace minutiae in the first act. It's also quite funny, especially when skewering the hypocrisy of corporate culture. Acts are bookended with workplace training videos stuffed with all-too-familiar platitudes and feel-good slogans. In Act 2, Millie's manager Eliza declares, of the hotel workplace, "This place runs on trust." The audience erupted with laughter.
As the play progresses, and Millie's navigation of corporate culture becomes defter, the momentum grows. It's not an easy path to the top, and she negotiates plenty — both with her supervisors and with herself. But it all builds to a conclusion that is, depending on your level of cynicism, either a Pyrrhic victory or an immensely satisfying catharsis. It's an excellent ending to a play that is difficult to describe, but easy to love.