They arrive in the United States — those hope-filled souls so memorably evoked by Emma Lazarus as the tired, the poor, “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free… the homeless and tempest-tossed.” But they quickly discover there is no “lamp beside the golden door” to greet them.
In fact, the group of penniless Lithuanian immigrants who finally make it to Chicago’s hellish meatpacking district in “The Jungle” — the revelatory 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair, now in a bare-bones, wildly inventive, powerhouse world premiere staged by Oracle Productions — are quickly subjected to every imaginable indignity and scam. And the harder they work, the more they seem to lose.
Adapter-director-designer Matt Foss has clearly drawn on the ideas of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, whose theory of “poor theater” suggested the need for an almost ritualistic bond to be created between actors and audiences. And sitting in Oracle’s small storefront — “a free public access theater” that received this year’s Emerging Theatre Award from the League of Chicago Theatres and Broadway in Chicago — you quickly become part of the blood, sweat and tears of the story.
Just as the cows here are bludgeoned and processed so that every last sinew is turned to profit, so are these newly arrived immigrants, who cannot speak English. Mercilessly preyed upon by bosses, union leaders, real estate hucksters, the police and politicians, they are unable to find redress even in the courts and soon realize that liberty and justice are beyond their reach. Prayer serves as a unifying balm for them at the start, and the dream of home ownership keeps them working like slaves. But at a certain point sickness, injury, alcohol and violence take hold.
The arrivals from Lithuania are Jurgis (Travis Delgado), the man determined to succeed; Ona (Stephanie Polt), the woman who will become his wife; Ona’s plucky cousin, Marija (Havalah Grace), a fast learner, but not immune to disaster; and Antanas (Drew McCubbin), Jurgis’ father, who suffers from lung disease. All find some kind of work at the slaughterhouse run by Connor (Thomas Wynne), the cruel boss who continually exploits Jurgis, rapes Ona, and forces her into prostitution, and condemns Antanas to certain death by forcing him to work in the dreaded fertilizer room, a toxic hell conjured by little more than fog and a slammed door.
In a simple but altogether stunning bit of stagecraft (also the work of Foss), three giant rolls of butcher paper hang from one wall of the theater, and as heavily inked metal plates bearing the imprint of a cow are slammed against them (dress down for this show), you can sense the sheer brute force of the whole operation. More insidious is the way Jurgis and Ona are cajoled into buying a house and signing a contract that will be their undoing.
While “The Jungle” is generally seen as a muckraking novel (and it certainly did expose the horrors of the meatpacking industry), Foss focuses on Sinclair’s sense of the destruction of the immigrants’ bodies and souls, and the pernicious divide between rich and poor. The fine ensemble also features Kate Staiger, Rick Foresee, Grayson Heyl and Dylan Stuckey. Nicholas Tonozzi’s thrilling music (which ranges from industrial percussion to church hymns), has been sored by Sam Allyn, who plays it along with Colin Morgan and Stuckey. Joan Pritchard’s costumes are as distressed as the characters. The lighting by AntiShadows, LLC, is haunting. This is a real thunderclap of a production.
NOTE: The free seats at Oracle are sponsored by The Forty 4, “a growing population of individuals and local businesses committed to making free art for all.”