For many individuals just out of college or in their early twenties, particularly young artists, temporary jobs can offer money and flexibility that allow them to pursue other passions. They may temp for offices as secretaries or spend ten hours a day doing data entry as an independent contractor. However, for others, temporary work is more than a means to an end. For poorer, less educated workers, the temporary economy represents one of the only types of work they can get to make ends meet.
Beyond Caring, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Lookingglass Theatre, is a deep dive into the lives of those working a temporary cleaning job in an unnamed meatpacking plant somewhere in Chicago. Devised and directed by Alexander Zeldin, who himself went undercover at several temporary jobs to research this piece, this production is a cutting and meticulous look into an environment staffed by people whose job means a place to sleep, a better meal, or the bus fare home.
At the start of the play, we are introduced to three of the newest contractors on their first day. Tracy (J. Nicole Brooks) is the first to enter the unwelcoming, dingy breakroom. Harshly lit by overhead fluorescent light, Daniel Ostling’s industrial scenic design strips Lookingglass’ performance space from any warmth, a detailed array of scuffs, spills, and grime coating the concrete floor and walls. Tracy’s entrance hangs in the air, and Brooks fills the silence with an expression of melancholic capitulation. This is where life has taken her, she seems to be thinking.
Tracy is soon joined by Sonia (Wendy Mateo), a Latina woman who speaks in broken English, and Ian (Keith D. Gallagher), who serves as their supervisor during night shifts. Running late and completing the newcomers is Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore), the youngest and most optimistic of the three, who apologizes for her uncharacteristic tardiness. Edwin Lee Gibson rounds out the cast as Phil, an older man who has worked the cleaning shift off and on for a couple of years when he can get the hours.
Each woman has taken this work through their staffing agency, but the agency offers little protection. In fact, Ian often uses their agency’s history of miscommunication as a way of deflecting questions about timely pay or consistent hours. When Ebony-Grace explains to Ian that her agency should have alerted him to her medical condition–she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis–he simply says they never called. The lack of care and protection established early on in Zeldin’s production subtly multiplies as the play progresses, demarcated by gradual shifts in behavior and countenance by a brilliantly naturalistic cast.
The simplicity and realistic setting of Beyond Caring paired with its lifelike dialogue and faithful representation of quiet desperation can make it easy to forget that you are watching a play. Each actor crafts a character so believable that it’s hard to not see those on the street or subway without beginning to imagine if their lives might hold similarities to Tracy, Ebony-Grace, Sonia, or Phil. Each sacrifice they make is born from merciless necessity for work, and their emotional deterioration can be hard to stomach. In a world where a cup of breakroom coffee represents the highlight of your work day, every out-of-order machine, cassette player low on batteries, and reprimand from your supervisor represents a crippling blow to your self-esteem.
Beyond Caring achieves radical empathy through its painstaking and painful attention to detail, an affecting combination that slowly creeps under your skin. When it’s revealed that the brutal addition of a double shift will only net each worker an additional $38.49, it’s hard not to shift in your seat, thinking of the cost of your theater ticket. The play’s title itself serves as a cruel and ironic double-meaning which reverberates long after its breathless 90-minutes are up.
Beyond Caring runs through May 7 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, located inside Chicago’s historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. at Pearson. Tickets range $40-$75 and can be bought online at lookingglasstheatre.org or by phone at 312-337-0665. Student tickets are available the day of the show for $20 with a valid student ID, based on availability.