In its area premiere of American Hero, Rep Stage has sent out a likable little David to do battle with the soulless Goliath of modern corporate culture. While playwright Bess Wohl accomplishes no miracles with her 2014 off-Broadway comedy, she has managed to craft an enjoyable, minimalist play about life at the minimum-wage end of the American Dream.
Rest assured that the title is not some “wink, wink” ironic poke in the eye of anyone’s patriotism. “Hero” in this case refers to the sort of “build your own” submarine sandwich that is the specialty of a certain fast-food franchise about to open for business at a mall “somewhere in America.”
For ill-prepared owner-manager Bob, the shop is the fulfillment of an immigrant’s dream of becoming his own boss. So what if the location the big boys at corporate HQ have provided is down some godforsaken cement hallway past the cinder blocks on the way to the loading dock?
We watch as Bob assembles a green team of willing employees, then reads them their duties from the franchise owners’ manual. Perhaps discouraged by the odds stacked against him, Bob quickly vanishes, not even attending the big opening day. His three “dream team” employees are left to dangle in an existential draft that once wafted more fiercely through the works of Sartre and Beckett.
But these workers have more specific problems than that. The basic supplies are being depleted, the customers are growing angry, and no one at corporate will answer the damned phone.
Director Suzanne Beal seems to know that most people in her audience will be reliving their own mixed memories of entry-level employment. She keeps the dialogue running along like the meter in a third-world taxi, not caring which jokes land and which get buried under the squeal of tires.
Beal’s experience and control more than shine through, however, in her wise choice of actors. All four of the cast members here show a firm grip on the people they are portraying.
Gary-Kayi Fletcher has the showiest part, playing no less than four different characters. He gives the overwhelmed Bob a foreign accent thicker than the shop’s prime rib special, then returns as an irate customer, a corporate spokesman and an hallucinated talking sandwich with choice words of inspiration for a beleaguered worker.
Sheri (note the “i,” please) is the youngest of the employees, working around a self-esteem gap while trying to do the jobs of two people to help with her stricken father’s health care. Liliana Evans is laughably lovable as she puts on her brave face while awaiting anything at all to validate her optimism.
Local favorite Megan Anderson returns to Rep Stage as the cynical Jamie, left on her own again at age 33 and struggling not to lose custody of her three kids. Jamie has been scraping bottom for so long that any distraction at all now qualifies as fun. Most of her customers put more thought into what they want on their sandwiches than she has given to her own future.
Finally there is Eric M. Messner, who plays Ted, a man in midlife freefall due to poor self-control who is nevertheless holding out hope for someone to throw him a new corporate ladder. He will ultimately have to decide if the sacrifices being asked of him are worth it.
Scenic Designer James Fouchard, long a treasure in local theater, gives us a workplace of happy colors and tempting slogans to rival any food joint in Dante’s Inferno. Lighting Designer William D’Eugenio and Sound Designer Jerry Metheny keep the play’s many glimpses into a changing workplace vivid and realistic through even the most improbable of plot developments to come.
For a modest play about a no-frills sandwich shop in an anonymous big-city mall, American Hero comes up with a pretty tasty menu. With Rep Stage making sure there is something there for everyone, theater-goers will surely not go away hungry.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
American Hero at Rep Stage plays through November 20, 2016 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.