Chicago Theatre Review
Trapped in the Meat Grinder of Life
Beyond Caring – Lookingglass Theatre
Three temps, prospective new employees, have been sent to this meat factory by their respective agencies. This trio of hopefuls, needing to be hired as night cleaners, have reported for work with applications in hand and desperation on their faces. The new workers we meet, like longtime employee, Phil, live from paycheck to paycheck, job to job. Often that’s not even enough to survive and it’s sometimes necessary to borrow twenty bucks until the next payday, or to ask for time off when you’ve only been working at the job for a few days.
Alexander Zeldin’s gritty, naturalistic drama, produced in association with Dark Harbor Stories, is another in the company’s series of original stories with a social conscience. Originally presented at London’s National Theatre, the play’s been reimagined for American audiences, particularly Chicago theatergoers. The playwright authentically depicts real, flesh-and-blood characters who are unflinchingly honest men and women we may know, whose lives are renewed with each payday. While we only catch a glimpse into the lives of these five characters, collectively we empathize with each of the low-level employees in this play.
The drama is directed by the playwright himself with blunt, unflinching directness and unrestrained, no-nonsense staging. Zeldin’s one-act is 90 breathtaking minutes of real life. It may not be the kind of existence that most theatergoers are use to seeing portrayed on stage. The closest it comes might be Steppenwolf “The Flick” or Lookingglass Theatre’s “The Jungle.” It’s a tough, courageous, no-holds-barred production, peppered with salty language and situations, set within Daniel Oosting’s authentic, environmental setting. The ambiance of the surroundings are utilitarian, right down to the florescent lighting, which flickers and plunges the room into complete darkness between each scene. Josh Anio Grigg has created a sound design that’s unobtrusive, but signals each new episode with a loud, musical crash. Mara Blumenfeld costumes her cast in clothing that’s appropriate for the typical Chicago blue collar worker.
Almost without exception, all five characters in this play live in isolation. They each work hard at cleaning the vast backroom, but they perform separately. No one helps anyone else,
J. Nicole Brooks plays Tracy, a tough, angry, 30-something woman on the brink of a meltdown. Like all of Zeldin’s characters, we never know precisely what makes her tick or the exact incidents that keep setting her off. Something forces Tracy to commit a shocking act toward the end of the play, one that most theatergoers won’t see coming. Frustrated, after being denied a day off to spend with her child or boyfriend (we never fully understand to whom she’s talking on her phone), Tracy erupts with a vengeance. Ms. Brooks creates a sad individual who’s an isolated island of hopelessness.
Caren Blackmore is Ebony-Grace, a likable younger woman, probably in her twenties, who suffers from osteoarthritis. Ebony-Grace’s upfront with her employer about needing to take her medication while at work, but she assures him that her condition won’t interfere with her job performance. However, when the young girl has a particularly bad attack of debilitating pain, there’s very little sympathy extended by anyone. As played by Ms. Blackmore, Ebony-Grace is a sweet, kind and caring individual whose plight is made even more lamentable by her physical restrictions.
As Sonia, Wendy Mateo, recently seen in Lookingglass Theatre’s “Blood Wedding,” portrays a kind, reticent 43-year-old woman who’s possibly the most destitute of the new workers. Sonia’s English skills are as sparse as her financial situation. When the coffee machine takes her money without providing her with a much-needed cup of java, Sonia’s anguish is palpable. When Ebony-Grace offers her a cookie Sonia snatches up a whole handful, which she wraps in toilet tissue and stuffs into her handbag for later. After everyone leaves at the end of the shift, Sonia secretly sneaks back into the workroom to sleep on a makeshift bed. Is this because she’s homeless? Does she lack the bus fare to return home? We never know, but in Ms. Mateo’s capable hands this character’s soul is exposed and pitiable.
Edwin Lee Gibson plays Phil, the only male employee. He’s a 50-year-old janitorial worker who’s going nowhere, “temporarily employed” at this job for two, long years. Shy, quiet and suffering from depression, Phil holes up in the restroom for his entire break, or longer. He escapes by reading paperback mysteries, which some of the other employees persuade him to read aloud. His pride and joy is his young, estranged daughter, whose birthday he celebrates with a small cake. Joined by Ebony-Grace, the two sing and record Happy Birthday to the girl on Phil’s ancient cell phone. The audience feels this man’s discomfort being around others, while commiserating with him as he copes with his financial status coupled with crippling depression.
The alpha male of the workplace is Ian. Portrayed as a stony man with an obvious lack of interest in his employees, Keith D. Gallagher plays that educated supervisor we’ve all seen who’s going nowhere. He’s stuck in an uninteresting job that undermines his talent and skill. But, like his employees, he sees no way out of his situation. While Ian quite likely takes home a bigger salary than his workers, and gets benefits, like insurance and a paid vacation, the man has become hardened over the years. He lacks any empathy or interest in the lives of his people. They’re just workers and his neck is on the line if the job doesn’t get done.
Alexander Zeldin’s drama which, at times, is laced with some unexpected humor, depicts the kind of desperate, unnoticed workers who are trapped in a meat grinder of life. Working at a sausage plant for minimum wages, these sanitary engineers are treated as the lowest of the low. They’re merely janitors, employees whose job includes cleaning the disgusting messes left behind by those higher up the employment ladder. Housed within a realistic stage setting that immerses the theatergoer into the middle of this blue collar work environment, it’s impossible not to leave this production feeling something for each of these five, sad characters. They’re all trapped in a life from which there’s little hope for escape.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 22-May 7 by Lookingglass Theatre Company, inside the historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-337-0665 or by going to www.lookingglasstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.