BAR HARBOR — “Remember Baby Jessica?” asks Mount Desert Island High School drama teacher Casey Rush. “It was maybe the first time the whole world became personally involved in a news story, as it happened, that had nothing to do with them.”
He is referring to the toddler who, back in the 80s, fell into a deep well. The efforts to rescue her, with the advent of 24-hour TV news, became a media phenomenon. Rush draws an analogy between this frenzied interest in a faraway child’s plight with this year’s one act play, “The Thugs,” which is now in rehearsal for its opening on March 2, and for the Drama Festival regionals held here the weekend of March 8.
“Everyone was caught up in Baby Jessica’s fate,” Rush says, “and these days there is so much news and speculation being hurled at us, we live in an age of constant fear about things near and far.”
If Baby Jessica was an early manifestation of this, just think about the international coverage of the more recent rescue of those Thai boys trapped in a cave.
Written by Adam Bock, “The Thugs” is set in a large featureless office where a crew of seven temp workers spends their long days crunching or “coding” numbers they neither understand nor care to understand.
Each of these temps has a backstory about how they came to be such insignificant cogs in the mighty capitalistic machinery of Hartford, Conn.
One temp, Mercedes (Carolyn Graber) is a former midwestern kindergarten teacher who came east with her husband, who promptly ditched her. Although it is still early in rehearsals, Carolyn has a good understanding of who Mercedes is and how she wants to play her.
“I’m shattered” she explains. “I’ve lost the job I was good at, my home, my husband and my confidence.”
To add to her misery, despite her efforts to fit in with the other temps, who have largely excluded her from their clique-ish company, she just seems to annoy them, inviting their scorn and mean-spirited teasing.
Rush has given all his actors a good deal of leeway in developing their characters. In the original Obie-winning play, Mercedes was an elderly woman defeated by a hard life. This younger interpretation makes the character more relevant and accessible to the young actor playing her.
Among Mercedes’ tormenters — the titular thugs — is Elaine (Rawl Blackett), a middle-aged, former up-and-coming executive who lost her rung on the corporate ladder in order to care for her elderly mother.
Now Elaine can’t seem to get her mojo back. Her resentment and disappointment are taken out on her fellow workers — mostly on Mercedes, who is such an easy target.
The only male in the crew is Bart (Colby Bennoch), who is sort of the class cut-up, making up or embellishing stories to ruffle feathers.
Then there’s Daphne (Ruby Mahoney), who tends to talk about being brave in hypothetical situations. In reality, she allows herself to be bullied and abused by her boyfriend Joey (Zach Uliano), who is trying to get her to engage in a little office espionage.
While there is an odd sort of office camaraderie among these people, they are really no more interested in one another’s lives than they are in their work. They rarely let each other finish their sentences, and when they manage to complete a thought, no one really listens. What interests them is what’s going on elsewhere, with other people, people they don’t know — the baby in the well, so to speak.
Even at this early stage in rehearsals with the actors still on script, one senses something ominous evolving. The quality of their office gossip takes a dark turn. Someone on another floor has died or was killed or killed someone or…. they can only speculate because they are so far removed from the action.
At some point, the static office environment itself will transform from bland to frightening and surreal as the tension mounts. Something, one senses, is going to explode.
“We are not supposed to know all these things!” one of the frantic temps cries.
The tech crew is largely responsible for the slow transformation of the inanimate office space.
While the actors rehearse in the school cafeteria, the ‘techies’ are in the auditorium, most of them with laptops in hand, testing out lighting, sound and music effects that will enhance the sense of growing dread.
Set designer Carlene Hirsch has created a model for a set that is so literal with its cheap office furniture, piles of file boxes and complete lack of personality, it tips over the line of realism into the creepy.
Other backstage work crews are creating windows that become projection screens, elevators and faux machinery.
At one point, one of these set builders looks up with a worried expression.
“We’ve only got a month left?” he exclaims. “How are we ever going to finish all this?”
Hirsch, who has decades of experience in every aspect of theater, responds calmly.
“Oh, we’ll finish,” she said. “In fact we are right on schedule.”
The student goes back to the panel he is creating. He seems reassured. He and his fellow “temp workers” all seem to be enjoying the work, immensely.
There will be a public performance of “Thugs” at Saturday, March 2 at 7 p.m. at the Higgins Demas Theater. The following weekend, MDI hosts the regional one act competition.