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Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's affecting "The Few" looks for grace and tenderness along the thruway.

Quite a crowd of characters populate Samuel D. Hunter’s play The Few, playing now through March 19 at Milwaukee Chamber Theater. But unlike the misfits that inhabit plays like O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh or William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, they are not really there. Instead, we meet them through ghostly phone messages—personal ads to be printed in The Few, a magazine for long-haul truckers: “Billy here looking for a female co-driver with at least two years’ experience. Intimate relationship not mandatory, but welcome!”

Even though the play is set in 1999, these messages are a haunting reminder of the mediated isolation of contemporary life—the tenuous connections made and unmade. There are three real people in The Few, but they live among those who exist mainly in the thoroughfares between places, living life at 70 miles-per-hour—nomads without a tribe.

Mary MacDonald Kerr and James Ridge.
Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Bryan (James Ridge)—one of the real people onstage—has done his time on the highways, and when we meet him at the beginning of The Few, he’s returning to his home base after going AWOL for several years. He has fought the good fight, creating and fostering a community by starting and fighting for a newsletter that attempted to connect and ennoble his cross-country comrades. His business partner, QZ (Mary MacDonald Kerr) has kept it going in the meantime, but with the changing times—and the absence of Bryan’s idealism perhaps—The Few has become mostly an interstate meet-market.

Hunter is a native of Idaho, and his celebrated plays are often unflinching looks at the struggles of working-class “middle-Americans”—both economic and existential. As such, The Few—though it was written in 2013—resonates profoundly with these Trumpian times.

James Ridge
Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

The story—and the described hardships of the long-haul life—is familiar enough, perhaps. But the beautifully rendered characters give The Few its richness and kick.

Ridge plays Bryan with great attention to his damaged spirit and his passionate resilience. Watch him listen—early in the play—to a personal ad phone message from “Cindy.” He routinely types her message, then stops dreamily as her rambling story becomes more than ad copy—a familiar tale of a lost and lonely soul. MacDonald Kerr plays QZ with the hard edge of a pragmatist—a Mother Courage of the interstate, perhaps—but reveals her heart in the care she shows for Matthew (Mitch Bultman).

Bultman, who is making his local major theater debut, give his character touching honesty and vulnerability. Personal ads and all, The Few is Matthew’s refuge from a cruel past, and Bultman is heartbreaking in his tenacity to get the paper out on time.

It’s all orchestrated by director C. Michael Wright, who helps imbue the characters with intricately wrought humanity. It’s a great play for our troubled times, and MCT’s production offers a welcome dose of compassion and respect for the troubled fellow travelers.

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