“We paid to watch them clean?”
That was the comment a woman seated directly behind me made during the opening moments of Lookingglass Theatre’s newest play, “Beyond Caring.” I turned around at the conclusion of the one-act, 90-minute show to find the same woman with a changed demeanour exchanging countless comments of praise about the show with her friends.
When entering the theater, audiences walk past lockers and coat hangers and through two industrial plastic doors to their seats, finding themselves looking at the break room of what they come to learn is a sausage factory.
British director and playwright Alexander Zeldin wrote and directed the appropriately titled “Beyond Caring,” which is making its U.S. debut at Lookingglass after touring throughout Europe this past year. Prior to writing the play, Zeldin went undercover as a minimum wage temporary cleaner. The authentically insecure world of the temporary employee conjured up as a result of his investigations made for an introspective experience for the audience, most of which had likely never endured such a style of living — wondering where they would be sleeping that night or how they were going to afford a single meal the next day.
First to enter the break room is Phil (Edwin Lee Gibson), a two-year temp-worker veteran at the factory. He keeps to himself, reading during any break and hesitantly falling compliant to his boss’s words, even when he wants to disagree and fight back.
Next comes Tracy (J. Nicole Brooks), a tough-on-the-exterior type who breaks and shows her vulnerable side in few, brief moments. These lapses in her smoldering ways open deep-rooted emotional scars hidden underneath her baggy sweatshirt and flat bill hat.
Sonia (Wendy Mateo) enters next. She’s a kind, hard-working type who struggles to convey her feelings through broken English. Mateo’s subtle and reserved acting choices packed one of the strongest performances from the five-person ensemble. In one moment, she’s sneaking food from the other temps because she can’t afford anything. In another, she lingers behind at the end of a shift, lining up a row of chairs to sleep on because she has no bed to go home to. Mateo doesn’t play to the emotion of pity, yet she attains the empathy of audience members’ hearts. In one scene, a coffee machine in the break room eats the few coins she saved, sending her leaning head first into a wall stifling back tears as she prepares herself to endure another unknown number of hours of prolonged hunger.
The final temporary employee to arrive for work is Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore). She’s 23-years-old with a slightly riper outlook and attitude than those of her counterparts. Although suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, she receives minimal sympathy from her boss when the disease physically debilitates her ability to fully perform her cleaning duties. Despite this, she exuberates a determination to press on.
Overseeing the four temporary employees is Ian (Keith D. Gallagher), a full-time employee of the factory just a slight rung above the temps. He struggles to connect with the four and takes his frustrations out on them in humiliatingly manipulative ways, knowing full well they can’t defy his macho authority for fear they’ll lose the minuscule steady income their positions provide.
While never completely breaking the fourth fall, Zeldin’s staging comes close to doing so. His direction sends the actors buzzing through the audience to unseen areas of the factory and sweeping and mopping under the feet of those seated on the floor of the theater. In turn it creates a feeling of intrusiveness on the lives of these workers, quite literally forcing audiences to look into their pleading, exhausted eyes from their comfortable $75 seats.
Because Zeldin doesn’t rely on dialogue, a greater emphasis is placed on the mechanical and monotonous work being done by the actors onstage — the scrubbing of walls and floors, disinfecting meat-coated machine parts. The lack of dignity in the work parallels the lack of dignity felt by the four employees. Hounding from Ian furthers the employees’ feelings that they, like their work, will never be good enough.
“Beyond Caring” seamlessly fits into Chicago’s theater scene, where new shows are staged that confront issues the general public tends to turn a blind eye to. I commend Zeldin and the perfectly cast five individuals for putting together a play that embodies everything theatre should be — a show that doesn’t need an elaborate set or abstract dialogue to convey a point. A show that creates a degree of discomfort, forcing empathetic audiences to face the stark realities that so many around us face daily.
“Beyond Caring” is playing at Lookingglass Theatre (821 N. Michigan Ave.) through May 7. Tickets cost $40-$75 and can be purchased at lookingglasstheatre.org or by calling 312- 337-0665. Student tickets are also available the day of the show for $20 with a valid student ID, based on availability.