You enter the world of Alexander Zeldin’s soul-stripping “Beyond Caring” through the sort of heavy vinyl curtain that often serves as a door to the unseen back rooms of a supermarket. And you might as well have entered a modern-day Underworld — the work room of a meat processing plant defined by the unrelenting glare of fluorescent lights, grimy walls, a cement floor and a counter full of unlabeled disinfectant sprays that are no doubt highly toxic.

Before long, three women, all clearly desperate for jobs, arrive for “orientation.” They have been sent by an employment agency as “temporary workers” — a euphemism for low wages, no benefits, short-term contracts with uncertain payroll dates and the most appalling work conditions. Anyone who has ever complained of being stuck in an office cubicle and condemned to doing mind-numbing computer work might instantly begin to thank their lucky stars.

And so it goes in this remarkable “immersive” production that originated in London, and has been reconfigured by Zeldin for Lookingglass Theatre’s American edition, with the backing of Dark Harbor Stories, a company (comprised of David Schwimmer, Tom Hodges, Philip R. Smith and David Catlin) devoted to telling socially relevant stories.

Be advised: “Beyond Caring” (for mature audiences) is harrowing in many ways, with the grueling physical and emotional existences of its characters sure to take a toll on actors and audiences alike.

‘BEYOND CARING’
Highly recommended
When: Through May 7
Where: Lookingglass Theatre,
821 N. Michigan
Tickets: $40 – $75
Info: (312) 337-0665
www.lookingglasstheatre.org
Run time: 95 minutes
with no intermission

J. Nicole Brooks and Edwin Lee Gibson in the Lookingglass Theatre production of Alexander Zeldin’s “Beyond Caring.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

In a sense, Lookingglass is coming full circle with this production, evoking a formidable early work: its 1990 stage adaptation of “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s landmark expose of the Chicago meat-packing industry and the immigrants exploited by it. The work also can be seen as a fitting addition to the list of such recent plays that uncover the all-too-often invisible anguish of the working poor, from David Lindsay-Abaire‘s “Good People” and Abe Koogler’s “Kill Floor,” to Lynn Nottage’s new Broadway hit “Sweat.”

The three new employees of the unnamed factory in Zeldin’s play include: Tracy (J. Nicole Brooks), a physically strong, highly capable, smolderingly angry African-American woman of about 30; Sonia (Wendy Mateo), a Latina with a limited command of English who is so poverty-stricken that she misses meals and is lucky if she can afford the fare to get to and from work, and Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore), the youngest of the group, a 23-year-old African American suffering from crippling rheumatoid arthritis, whose disability payments may have run out.

Their boss is Ian (Keith D. Gallagher), an educated white guy deeply frustrated by his lot in life, whose macho attitudes are barely disguised, and whose rage robs him of any compassion. The only person for whom he shows the slightest empathy is Phil (Edwin Lee Gibson), the 50-year-old African American suffering from depression — a gentle soul who has worked at the plant for several years, who retreats to the bathroom at his worst moments, and who turns to reading the books of Dick Francis, the British jockey and crime writer, for escape.

So just what happens in “Beyond Caring”? Initially we watch as Phil and the women do the exhausting grunt work of scrubbing the floors, walls and toilets of the plant’s communal spaces with barely any training or safety precautions provided. Few real details about their lives are revealed, but we can intuit many things, as when Sonia loses a dollar in a broken coffee machine and grabs hold of a wall when she is close to fainting from lack of food; as when Tracy asks Ebony-Grace for a loan for carfare after paychecks are delayed, and after she is denied a day off so she can visit a loved one (perhaps a boyfriend in prison, or maybe a son) on his birthday.

But if the initial cleaning work seems debilitating, it is nothing compared to the double shifts each of the workers agrees to take on when the sausage-making part of the factory goes into overdrive and they must scrub and disinfect the most disgusting meat-encrusted machinery for hours on end. (Applause for Daniel Ostling’s set and Amanda Herrmann’s props.)

The magic of Zeldin’s production is rooted in several things: the intimacy of those scenes in which this group of intensely private and self-protective people occasionally connect; the devastating loneliness that can be sensed in their many silences; the sheer brute physicality of their labor.

The ideally chosen actors are uniformly superb, fueled by Brooks’ gale force temper, Mateo’s quiet desperation, Blackmore’s heartrending determination, Gibson’s altogether haunting sadness and sweetness, and Gallagher’s bitter resentment — all combining to create an engine of humanity that is fully inhumane in every element of its existence.

You might well leave the theater wondering just how much worse it could get given the possible dismantling of federally mandated work rules and protections during the current administration. Terrifying to imagine.

Edwin Lee Gibson (from left), Caren Blackmore and Wendy Mateo in the Lookingglass Theatre production of Alexander Zeldin’s “Beyond Caring.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)