American Theater Company‘s Midwest premiere of playwright Abe Koogler’s contemporary drama Kill Floor is a searing character study in desperation and the search for meaningful connection. Set in a small town in the early 2000s, the play traces Andy (Audrey Francis) following her release from a five-year incarceration. In need of a job, Andy begins work at a local slaughterhouse while trying to rekindle her relationship with her vegan teenage son, B (Sol Patches). Away from home, Andy struggles to adapt to her new job while rebuffing the advances of her employer, Rick (Eric Slater). B’s own life is equally complicated: his relationship and infatuation with his best friend Simon (Louie Rinaldi) become strained when B begins to suspect he’s just using him to get weed. Adeptly directed by Jonathan Berry and featuring a powerful ensemble of five actors each making their ATC debut, Kill Floor is fraught with many questions, all aimed at dissecting the many facets of what it means to be an American.
Koogler’s script is written sparsely, full of unfinished thoughts, vague pronoun references, and interruptions. The dialogue’s natural ebb and flow is expertly handled by Berry and his cast, with each moment on stage mining the text for its full dramatic potential. The beats between words and moments of silence in the piece are equally powerful under Berry’s direction, as is the expressive use of distance between actors. This is a production which uses scarcity to its maximum effect and smartly keeps the tension razor sharp.
Dan Stratton’s scenic design parallels this sparseness, while simultaneously evoking a slaughterhouse. A narrow alleyway for the performers is flanked on each end with corrugated steel and large doorways with plastic stripping. Locations are suggested with minimal set pieces: steel chairs, a bed, a desk– all of which are violently, yet efficiently, pushed about the playing space by the actors, a subtle reference to the slaughterhouse’s way of operating. Matt Chapman’s sound design evokes a similar harshness and punctuates transitions with a varied industrial din. Costume design by Christine Pascual is simple and contemporary, complementing Stratton’s design in its focused use of texture to expound upon setting and class. Everything is tied together by Rachel K. Levy’s use of bleak, direct light to delineate the playing space.
Helmed by a fascinating Audrey Francis, this fearless cast knows how to maintain the play’s stakes while still hitting the laughs. Even so, Berry’s expert direction manages to turn even the most seemingly innocent moments of dark humor into tragic ammunition, as each actor twists and weaponizes that laughter to further underscore his or her character’s needs. No actor is as successful at utilizing the benefits of such timing as Francis, whose portrayal of Andy is steeped in acerbic wit and a strong sense of the harshness of the world. These characteristics are tempered by moments of vulnerability and tenderness as she attempts, again and again, to find common ground with her 15-year-old son. Sol Patches, while the youngest member of the cast, doesn’t show their age at all, tackling meaty sections of conflict with aplomb. Their performance, which carefully balances earnestness and angst, still manages to be full of genuine moments of joy. B’s attempts to freestyle rap or show off his dance moves bring a raw exuberance to the play when filtered through Patches and are exhilarating to behold.
Each other member of the supporting cast is just as careful in crafting three-dimensional performances as Francis and Patches. Eric Slater’s performance as Rick is a carefully calibrated blend of cocksure employer and hopelessly unhappy husband. A moment in which Slater gazes at his figure while alone on stage speaks volumes to the cracks in his seemingly picturesque life. Simon (Louie Rinaldi), admired by B as a “conscious rapper” introduces another layer to B when it is revealed that their friendship has the potential for manipulation and abuse. Rinaldi leaves the sinister implications of his character’s actions to the audience’s interpretation, instead choosing to highlight Simon’s charming recklessness and commitment to drugs, hip hop, and nonchalance. This blend of narrow passions and broad indifference perfectly encapsulates a generation of American youth, while also serving as a cover for Simon’s own inner doubts. Sarah (Darci Nalepa), a woman Andy befriends in a grocery store bonding over non-dairy milk substitutes, is just as flawed in her attempts to keep up a facade of normalcy and a happy marriage. Nalepa plays Sarah’s insecurities close to the chest, but in the instant an unfortunately timed question is posed to her, we witness her capacity to lash out and sense a deeply private sense of despondency. Through the combined efforts of all five actors, Koogler’s succinct writing is richly brought to life with grit and honesty.
ATC’s Kill Floor presents audiences with a well-crafted and emotionally engaging drama about family, class, appropriation, race, and the fierce need for connection. The production, featuring Audrey Frances, Sol Patches, Eric Slater, Louie Rinaldi, and Darci Nalepa runs from March 31 to May 1 at American Theater Company (1909 W. Byron St.). Kill Floor’s production team features work by Katrina Herrmann (Stage Management), Cole Van Glahn (Assistant Director), Dan Stratton (Scenic Design), Rachel K. Levy (Lighting Design), Christine Pascual (Costume Design), Matt Chapman (Sound Design), and Jeremiah Barr (Props Design). Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Single tickets for Kill Floor range from $38-$48 and are available by calling the ATC box office at 773-409-4125, or visiting www.atcweb.org.