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Common Wealth Endeavors’ Twinbill of “Elevator” and “Contractions” Is Uncommonly Good Theater

The cast of "Elevator" by New Zealand playwright Jess Sayer includes (from left) Mary Guthrie, Susannah Hough, and Amanda Hahn (photo © Alex Maness)

The cast of “Elevator” by New Zealand playwright Jess Sayer includes (from left) Mary Guthrie, Susannah Hough, and Amanda Hahn (photo © Alex Maness)

Director and founder of Common Wealth Endeavors, Gregor McElvogue says, “… [A] wealth of literature expresses the unique cultures of vastly disparate people in a single common language.” He refers to English-speaking peoples; Common Wealth Endeavors is designed to bring some of the drama of those cultures to our theaters. In their current offering, produced at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, one playwright, Jess Sayer, is from Auckland, New Zealand, and the other, Mike Bartlett, is from the United Kingdom.

Both one-acts are zingers, with uncomfortable tensions and titillating humor telling their stories. Both plays occur in very tight quarters, so blocking is a primary concern for director Gregor McElvogue. In both cases, he pulls it off very nicely.

In “Elevator” by Jess Sayer, a mother, her daughter’s friend, and her daughter are stuck in an old elevator that strands them between floors — a perfect setting. Imagine it with no more walls than a mime in a box uses. Yet we feel their proximity, and are aware of the borders that we never see as they pass through a variety of emotional entanglements that stifle their atmosphere.

Contractions” by Mike Bartlett is contained entirely in the squeezed space of an international business manager’s teeny office, containing only a small desk and two chairs, which bespeaks the privacy of the conversations held there. Even when she strides around with great authority, The Manager is restricted to little floor space. When her victim, Emma, enters and exits, she has but two steps to get to and from the chair she must use. The confined space enhances the prying intimacy of their discussions.

Mothers make huge sacrifices for their children, especially a single parent, but they don’t usually flaunt that fact, and Susannah Hough as the mother, Bridget, in “Elevator,” presents us with a tolerant and interested mother, who does not impose herself on her child and really wants only to let her live her own life, and live it well. But Bridget is disappointed that she has not heard from her daughter, Samantha, in three months.

Of course, each of the women has something she does not want to reveal; and Hough never gives a clue what Bridget’s secret may be. Samantha, rebellious and demandingly independent, is played brashly and with the appropriate in-your-face attitude of a mid-twenties non-conformist by Amanda Hahn. Her performance involves the manipulation of a prop with such frightening authority that it seems to become a character itself, as she wrestles with her understandable anger and pain.

Mary Guthrie as Harper, Samantha’s lifelong best friend, has a scene so sweet that one wants to weep, explaining how she lost one lover and is uncertain about the circumstances of her present one.

Laurel Ullman (left) and J Evarts star in "Contractions" by Mike Bartlett (photo © Alex Maness)

Laurel Ullman (left) and J Evarts star in “Contractions” by Mike Bartlett (photo © Alex Maness)

In “Contractions,” a young woman named Emma, who is well regarded in her job, which involves sales, must discuss some personal activities with her Manager. Laurel Ullman is quite forbearing as Emma, when the discussion turns so questionable that it sets off alarms. The story then only gets worse.

Ullman takes us down her surrender to an Oceania-like industry from cheery acquiescence to utterly broken degradation. J Evarts as the coldly rational Manager never shows an ounce of human emotion, keeping her demeanor light but demanding, and carrying out the impersonal personnel policies as blithely as she might turn a page from the employee handbook.

Original music by Adam Lindquist introduces each scene, setting the corresponding mood. Effective lighting by Andrew Parks segues us between episodes.

These plays transported easily into America, demonstrating the similarities between us all irrespective of the geographical differences. They are very welcome here. It’s interesting to find how readily the language we share tells our common stories, and we encourage more productions from Common Wealth Endeavors.

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 11th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Brian Howe:

Common Wealth Endeavors presents “ELEVATOR” AND “CONTRACTIONS” at 3 p.m. Feb. 22, 8 p.m. Feb. 26-28, 3 p.m. March 1, and 8 p.m. March 5-7 at at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina 27705.

TICKETS: $15 ($10 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).

BOX OFFICE: 919-410-8631,, or

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“Elevator” (one-act play): (Playmarket Agency page).

Jess Sayer (New Zealand playwright): (Playmarket Agency bio), (Johnson & Laird Management bio), (Facebook page), and (Twitter page).

“Contractions” (2008 one-act play): (Bloomsbury Publishing).

Mike Bartlett (U.K. playwright): (The Agency bio), (Facebook Page), and (Wikipedia).

Gregor McElvogue (Raleigh, NC director): (official website), (Facebook Page), and (Twitter page).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews