Originally published on PXP
About two years ago, I spent a summer in New Mexico. Something about the specificity of a play being set in New Mexico was attractive to me, definitely in part because my time there remains cherished in my memory. There’s a kind of hard beauty to desert-land, with everything around you bathed in orange sunlight and an unending presence of terracotta goods. At night, the fierce heat subsides and you’re left chilly, bundling up under cloudless skies and millions of stars. Nowhere else in the world have I ever felt so alone, so aware of my smallness in this gigantic universe. Nowhere else have I ever felt so at peace.
For the characters in this play, however, New Mexico is a liminal place fraught with worry. And like the weather, everything in the lives of these characters is harsh. Fulfillment Center takes place in and around exactly that: a fulfillment center, the kind of vast warehouse that major online companies use to package and distribute their thousands of shipments each day. A bleak backdrop, to say the least. It’s at this warehouse that we, the audience, are introduced to Suzan, an eccentric 60-something year old who desperately wants a job at the warehouse. She practically begs Alex, a new in-over-his-head manager, for the job. She’s longing to go to Maine, while he has plans to move to Seattle if he does well enough to get a job transfer.
From the onset, the atmosphere feels… off. Something about each interaction is inherently uncomfortable, and that’s beyond the fact that by the very first scene Suzan is giving Alex a neck massage that makes him weep (he suffers from sudden thunderclap headaches; she tries to help). The play’s characters are all battling their own inner turmoil, and watching their lives intersect often made me want to reach out of my seat, jump on stage, and stop them from going any further.
This was especially the case when we were introduced to Alex’s long-time girlfriend, Madeleine. She has just moved from New York City to be with him, but has nothing nice to say about it. Her character is one who I could never really figure out – perhaps in part because she didn’t seem to have herself figured out. Her perspective was abrasive, dry, though always humorous. But every time she took the stage, I felt my brows furrowing and had to remind myself to relax before I gave myself a headache – after all, this was just a play. Though, it was a consciously frustrating one at that.
Like the New Mexico desert that all the characters seem to hate, this play was ultimately filled with a whole lot of emptiness. The interactions never amount to anything significant, as they introduce a lot of brittle tension without ever diffusing it. It reminded me of one of those uncomfortable dreams where nothing inherently bad is happening, yet there’s an impending sense that something is about to take place. Upon waking, you don’t know why you feel like you’ve had a nightmare. I think it’s this lack of culmination that made me feel so uneasy throughout this play. In many ways, it was as though the lives of real people were being played out on stage – in all of their uncomfortable, bizarre, unsatisfying realness. And like real people, their problems couldn’t be resolved in 1 hour and 40 minutes.
I wasn’t upset by that, but I was definitely taken aback. It’s not something I’d typically expect of a play. I left the performance that afternoon unsure of what to make of it all, and I’m still feeling the same way.