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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Stage Left’s ‘Minimum Wage’ explores working fast food in thrilling new play by local playwright

Stage Left Theater in Spokane is hosting the world premiere of “Minimum Wage,” a new play by Spokane Valley actor and writer Dahveed Bullis.  (Stage Left)

Walking into Stage Left’s Theatre’s world premiere of “Minimum Wage,” you will be hit by the smell of fries in a vat of oil – immediately transporting you to the job you had or have in fast food.

Written by local playwright and actor Dahveed Bullis, “Minimum Wage” sees a group of workers toil for the bare minimum in a Spokane drive-thru. The play’s fictional Family Burger is taken from Bullis’ own experience working in fast food, and it shows.

As each of the five Family Burger employees rushes to fill orders of the seemingly endless customers at the drive-thru window, an audience member could be forgiven for forgetting they were in a theater and not a Zip’s.

That sense of immersion is aided by Cordero Aaron’s astounding set. From the walk-in freezer to the OSHA guidelines and miscellaneous cleaning products strewn about the cleanup station, Family Burger is fully realized. With little puffs of steam and smoke, the kitchen on stage even sells the idea that the actors are actually cooking each time a Pa Burger Combo is ordered.

The set is made all the more impressive because plans for a full production of “Minimum Wage” only started three months ago. Stage Left scrapped plans for a production of “The Pillowman” because of its allegedly ablest undertones and replaced it with Bullis’ play, which has been in development for a number of years.

The best part of the beautiful set is its service to the story – a group of misfit minimum wage workers struggling to find the family promised in their restaurant’s namesake even as capitalism’s pursuit of profit makes that impossible.

That team is lead by Evan, a struggling actor and a nice boss who is trying his hardest to be a little less nice. Actor Shaune Garner perfectly embodies the conflicted nature of his character – desperate to juggle running a business, being a single father and practicing for his big community theater audition.

Much of the conflict of the play is driven by Jared and Dan, a couple who owns the restaurant and forces Evan to overwork himself and strike fear in the employees he manages.

Bullis smartly sidesteps the stereotypical tyrannical boss who purposely wants to terrorize his underlings. Empathetically played by Jerrod Phelps and Barry Saxton, Jared and Dan seem like a nice couple – one you could imagine befriending to enjoy a cocktail at a dinner party.

But that pleasantness does not counteract their role as business owners who see their employees as lessers who must be drained of every last inch of profit. Every time the pair saunters on stage like it owns the place (which they do), it was a scene of captivating and infuriating theater.

In that way, Bullis’ play remains slyly political throughout – alluding to the struggle of the working class even as the primary focus remains on the melodrama of the characters.

A single mom struggling under the weight of all her responsibilities. A retiree back in the workforce looking for community. A drug addict and convict out on parole (in a stand-out performance by Michael Schmidt) who is trying to provide for a son he has not seen in a long time. Each of the Family Burger employees wants to find more meaning in Family Burger than any job can actually provide.

While almost entirely enjoyable, the play was not without flaws as viewed on opening night. Believability of the actors varied among the characters. One character’s late entry into the performance felt a bit out of nowhere. Even with the pair’s nice chemistry, an on-again-off-again romance between two employees felt a tad underdeveloped, with a sensitive subject rushed.

But the play is undeniably compelling and is Bullis’ love letter to Spokane. It is set in Spokane and often references city streets and locations. There are even one or two jokes that could go over the head of an out-of-towner.

As he describes in the playbill, “Minimum Wage” is Bullis’ first produced play. It does not feel like it. The world of Family Burger is fully realized, and we should just be grateful to spend our lunch break there over the next month. Thoroughly engrossing throughout, the play is a meal very much worth the price.