At the Lookingglass Theatre Company
Chicago - “Beyond Caring” at the Lookingglass Theatre is a powerful exploration of the plight of the underclass men and women who struggle to survive as temporary (temp) workers. They are the people who do the dirty work of American economic life by cleaning our offices and factories after working hours.
The temp workers in “Beyond Caring” perform tedious, physically demanding labor for little money and none of the rights enjoyed by regular members of the work force, like medical insurance, job security, minimum wages, and regular hours. The play was written in England about three years ago after much on-the-scene research by Alexander Zeldin, a Russian-born Englishman, who also directs the Lookingglass production. In the original British staging the workers were the victims of their class, which economically was the lowest on the country’s social scale. For the American premiere at the Lookingglass, the workers are isolated by race and ethnicity. Three of the workers are black and one is Hispanic. They are supervised, more accurately ruled over, by a young white man.
For the United States premiere, the Lookingglass performance space has been reconstituted into a large bleak room in a factory in an unnamed city at an unknown time but presumably the present. The temp workers sign 14-day contracts that are renewable if work is available (Phil, the sole black man among the workers) has been on the job for two years. The three women are just starting.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
“Beyond Caring” runs for 90 minutes with no interruption. Although time passes, the work remains the wearisome and tiring same, cleaning and scrubbing machinery and walls and floors. The supervisor sets the hours and the shifts, commonly stringing a full night’s work plus extensions with little rest and no increase in pay. The workers have no recourse. They haven’t any spokespersons to take their part in a public forum. The Hispanic woman may be an illegal, so she understandably keeps the lowest of profiles at work. The temps all have their jobs at the pleasure of their employer. They accept their lot or they can quit, but they need the money too desperately to walk away or make waves.
For much of its duration, the play takes the audience through the nightly regimen the workers endure. There are long periods of silence with the only sounds being the sloshing of water in buckets, the slapping of mops on the floor, or the scrubbing of machines. There is little dialogue, and most of what is said is banal. At least I think it was banal. For too much of the evening the performers are inaudible. Part of the problem might be the acoustics of the large empty room and part may be the nature of the characters, who live insecure intimidated lives, at least at work, which do not encourage loud, attention getting talking. Still, the lack of vocal projection from the otherwise talented ensemble put a great strain on me and at least one person sitting next to me.
“Beyond Caring” doesn’t provide much back story for the characters. We learn that Tracy (J. Nicole Brooks) is a single mother who is denied a day off to visit her child by management. Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore), the other black female worker, painfully struggles with crippling arthritis. We learn almost nothing about Sonia (Wendy Mateo), the Hispanic, except that she may be homeless. We see her sleeping one night in the room on a bed of folding chairs until Ian (Keith D. Gallagher), her white supervisor, arbitrarily evicts her. Phil (Edwin Lee Gibson), the black man, could suffer from depression. During his non working moments, Phil reads paperback mystery stories, often sequestering himself for long periods in the restroom.
The play does an interesting take on Ian. As Gallagher plays him, Ian, though a tough boss, has some sensitivity. He sincerely talks about his spiritual side and seems to go easy on Phil, though that may be a sexist reflex. The women get no special considerations. There are moments we see Ian seated on stage, along and despairing, like he feels the degradation of his job and the working conditions he must enforce. Maybe that’s giving him too much credit, but Gallagher at least allows for the possibility that Ian is trapped in the same dreary working environment that is beating down his four workers. But if so, why doesn’t he quit ?Unlike the others, he has freedom of movement.
Although the play moves with a heightened, understated realism, there are sudden injections of glaring lights and strident sounds to ramp up the theatrical temperature. The prickly Tracy explodes in a burst of raging profanity while illuminated in nightmarish lighting effects, perhaps symbolizing that the character has reached a breaking point, however short lived. Late in the play Tracy and Phil suddenly join in onstage sexual intercourse, a momentary release from the tensions of their existence before retreating into their nightly drudgery.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
The play portrays the grim lifestyle of the workers but it is not a work of overt social protest. There are no “Waiting for Lefty” scenes of proletarian indignation or speeches waving the bloody shirt of labor rebellion against management oppression. The play’s title is suggestive of the lifestyle that drains all feelings from the workers except the weary drive to make it through the night. Everything we see in that forbidding room reinforces the reality that these workers, and by extension thousand more like them, have been marginalized from normal society. They can’t speak for themselves because they could lose their precious jobs and anyhow, who would listen to them?
Alexander Zeldin has traveled from England to Chicago to direct the production in conjunction with David Schwimmer’s Dark Harbor Stories company, Schwimmer being a member of the Lookingglass company. Zeldin presumably has gotten just what his vision of his play requires, a seamless ensemble performance in which brief shards of dialogue and extended silences combine to build a sense of rising tension concluding with the stark final image. On the surface, nothing much happens but the play has escalating emotional resonances beneath that surface that will grab the attention of the attentive viewer.
The physical production unifies to underscore the play’s grim working environment, thanks to Daniel Ostling’s scenic and lighting design, Mara Blumenfeld’s costume designs, and Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design and original music.
For its comparatively brief running time, “Beyond Caring” intimately encloses the audience in a compelling dead end world. So what is the viewer supposed to take from the play? The jobs portrayed are certainly dreary but they need to be done. The working conditions are deplorable but good luck trying to change them, even with the moral force the absorbing dramatic experience “Beyond Caring” provides. It’s possible some viewers may be bored by the lack of action (and at least a few by the inability to hear everything being said on stage).
The playwright certainly deserves high marks for dramatizing the plight of temp workers so persuasively. Will his work contribute to rectifying the injustices of temp worker abuses? Who knows? But I may never again drive through the Loop after dark and look up at the lit office buildings without sympathizing with the night corps of laborers cleaning rest rooms and gathering trash, floor by floor and hour by hour.
“Beyond Caring” runs through May 7 at the Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Tower Water Works, 821 North Michigan Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $75. Call 312 337 0665 or visit lookingglasstheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars.
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