Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through May 7
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The people “Beyond Caring” is about couldn’t afford to buy a ticket to see it. That’s just one of the ironies involved in the the U.S. premiere of the play about temporary workers written and directed by Brit Alexander Zeldin.
Originally devised for London’s Yard Theatre with a lot of first-hand research, the 90-minute piece has been retooled for Chicago by Zeldin with the help of Dark Harbor Stories, a company led by Lookingglass ensemble member David Schwimmer and Tom Hodges and dedicated to producing stories with a social conscience. The main difference, as they see it, is that in the U.S., the workers on the lowest rung of the ladder are almost all African American or Latino/a, and the issues are more about race than class.
The style is “immersive”–a term you’re likely to hear a lot this year. Scenic and lighting designer Daniel Ostling has turned the theater into a Chicago sausage factory that’s undergoing construction, starting with the temporary flooring in the lobby. Once through the pliable plastic doors (similar to those in meat-processing facilities), you’re in the break room surrounded by grimy walls and debris-littered concrete floors under the glare of florescent strip lights. Metal shelves hold poorly labeled spray bottles of cleaning products; a few boxes are piled in one area. Except for blackouts between scenes, the house remains lit throughout the performance.
The evening begins with the arrival, one by one, of three women through double doors that presumably lead to the rest of the factory or the loading dock or both. Tracy (J. Nicole Brooks), who we later learn is 36, is African American, edgy with energy and anger, and wears a red baseball cap. Sonia (Wendy Mateo), is a quiet 43-year-old Latina who speaks little English and seems to be struggling to understand what’s going on. Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore), the youngest at 23, is African American, arrives late, and has rheumatoid arthritis. They’ve each gotten this temporary job as a night-shift cleaner through a different agency, and join Phil (Edwin Lee Gibson), a 50-year-old African American who has worked here for a few years, spends most of his time reading novels by British jockey and crime writer Dick Francis, and suffers from depression, causing him to retreat to the bathroom now and then.
Their immediate boss is Ian (Keith D. Gallagher), a college-educated white guy who pontificates about being “spiritual” when he’s not humiliating the others by ordering them around, ignoring their needs, or subjecting them to various indignities, both intentionally and cluelessly. After he provides the most perfunctory training on using a giant machine called “the beast,” much of the show is given over to them cleaning—sweeping and mopping the floors, washing the walls, emptying garbage, breaking down and scrubbing sausage-making equipment when they’re asked to work a double shift to accommodate the production of a new product. The pay they’re offered for this is a pittance, but no one can refuse. In fact, delayed pay contributes to their chronic insecurity and uncertainty about the future.
While there’s no real plot, we do get hints of back stories, and despite the overwhelming sense that each person is isolated, there are little bits of interaction, both kind and not. Phil, seeing that Ebony-Grace is eating junk food, brings her pasta he’s made and together they take a selfie singing happy birthday to his daughter who, as far as we can tell, he hasn’t seen in some time. Tracy begs Ian for a Saturday off to go see her daughter, and when her request is refused, she makes a stab at a mini rebellion. Sonia is so poor, she resorts to pilfering cookies to have something to eat, and she may be homeless since she stretches out on three folding chairs one night, only to be kicked out by Ian. Ebony-Grace stops taking her arthritis medication because, she says, Ian objects to her taking the necessary breaks, and when she’s visibly crippled by pain, all he can think about is her inability to keep up.
Powerful—and powerfully depressing—as “Beyond Caring” may be, thanks to consummate actors who fully inhabit the characters, it’s also problematic. The script needs fine-tuning, from little things like the novel Phil is reading to bigger ones like the fact that Ian seems all wrong. Given that he’s only one rung up on the ladder, I think he, too, should probably by African American or Latino, but of course that would fly in the face of the creators’ preconceptions about the role of race.
Given the attention to hyper-realistic staging, I found the scene about the cleaning of the sausage-making equipment the most disturbing. Big pieces of metal machinery are dragged into what’s supposed to be the breakroom still full of bits of cruddy meat, then cursorily sprayed with undoubtedly toxic chemicals, scrubbed a little, and splashed with a hose. Chicago has very strict food-service health codes, and I doubt that any factory would break them so flagrantly. If I find out I’m wrong, I’m never eating sausage again.
A final thought: My companion at “Beyond Caring” comes from a working-class background and found the show condescending. I simply felt a little uncomfortable about artistic white guys (Zeldin and Schwimmer et al), however well-intentioned, trying to educate well-heeled audiences about a kind of life they can’t fully understand because they’re not stuck in it with no way out.