‘The Mill’ captures life in a one-company town

Playwright Jeannine Coulombe remembers seeing the play “Waiting for Lefty” years ago at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. It’s about a bunch of cab drivers planning a labor strike in the 1930s.

“And I thought, this feels really dated. But these issues still exist,” says Coulombe.

The labor issues may exist, but very few American plays take them on.

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Andy Rocco Kraft, Terry Hempleman, Amy MacDonald in the production “The Mill” at The Playwrights’ Center.

Coulombe’s new play “The Mill” is her own look at unions and corporate power, based on her experiences growing up in International Falls. The Northern Minnesota town is home to a paper mill owned by Boise Cascade.

“My dad worked in the mill, my uncles worked in the mill, my friends worked in the mill,” recalls Coulombe. “International Falls is a one industry town – one company town, really – and you can’t grow up in a town like that without it affecting you.”

Coulombe recalls how life revolved around “mill paydays.” On those days, there were longer lines at the grocery stores, and more tables filled at the local restaurants. If a child wanted something, often their parent would respond with “not until mill payday.”

The play is set during an unusually hot week week in June of 1989, as Boise Cascade is offering to expand the town’s mill, but only if the union workers sign a new contract that would, among other things, change shifts from eight hours to 12 hours. Meanwhile, the factory hires a massive crew of non-union construction workers.

TheMill.jpgThe situation creates mounting tension between union workers who want to stand firm, and local businesses and schoolteachers who rely on the paper mill’s industry to fuel their own livelihoods.

Coulombe focuses on how the proposed contract affects a long-time mill worker, his wife (a school bus-driver) and their son, just back from a difficult first year of college.

“These are fictional characters but I can’t say that I don’t know them,” says Coulombe. “This is the most personal play I’ve written.”

While the play is based in personal experiences, Workhaus Collective’s Dominic Orlando says it’s also incredibly timely.

“There’s a line in the play – ‘When a bunch of little guys fight each other, it’s the big guy that wins,'” quotes Orlando. “And when you look at the situation at Foxconn, or the debate in Wisconsin over collective bargaining, that’s exactly what’s going on.

“But in the public debate, we’re not even allowed to talk about profit. It’s either the consumers want a cheaper price or the workers get paid more – they don’t even talk about the third party – the corporation – and the profit they make.”

Coulombe says she hopes “The Mill” will get people talking:

Ultimately I really wanted to give voice to something I don’t see on the stage. We don’t want to talk about class in America, and we don’t want to write plays about it, and I finally got tired of not talking about it. I just really wanted to write about something I wasn’t seeing.

The Workhaus Collective presents “The Mill” through May 5 at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.

All photos: Kevin McLaughlin