With its searingly written, and feverishly acted and directed production of Abe Koogler’s “Kill Floor,” American Theater Company has finally given us a play that lives up to the umbrella title of its current “Legacy Season,” envisioned as a tribute to PJ Paparelli, its late artistic director, who died last year in an auto accident.
Koogler’s play is about many things — the life of the working poor, the long road to recovery after a prison sentence, the pain of betrayal, the divide of class and race, the power of sexual tension, and the breakdown of human communication on many levels (despite the ubiquity of mobile phones). In just about 100 minutes, and without ever preaching or proclaiming, it manages to suggest why this country’s politics are unfolding the way there are at the moment. But more than anything, this play draws you into the most intimate feelings of its five characters with an intensity that is difficult to shake.
Director Jonathan Barry is a long-proven master of this bared nerves sort of realism. And he has gathered a cast fearless enough to expose each and every bare nerve as they struggle to connect, to escape their pervasive loneliness, and to come to terms with their ambivalence and disappointment.
When: Through May 1
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron
Tickets: $38 – $48
Info: (773) 409-4125; http://www.atcweb.org
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
Andy (Audrey Francis, wholly riveting in a role that confirms her stature as one of this city’s fiercest and most accomplished actresses), is the mother of a biracial teenage son from a broken marriage. She has spent the past five years in prison on a drug charge — the end point of a misspent youth in a small Midwestern town where the biggest employer seems to be the slaughterhouse.
Though it is Mexican immigrants who do most of the truly dirty work in the place (and who have little chance of advancement despite their work ethic), the factory’s manager, Rick (Eric Slater, in a spot on portrayal of a middle-aged man whose appetite is not quite matched by his self-confidence) — is willing to give her a chance working on the kill floor. He vaguely remembers Andy from high school days, and she is at once eager, desperate, and tough.
She also is grateful. And while there is the hint of chemistry between the two (as well as a possible promotion to a desk job), Rick is married, and the father of a son. And Andy, still scarred by betrayal, wants to steer clear of involvement, at least initially.
More importantly, she wants to reestablish her relationship with her son, “B” (Sol Patches in a performance of agonizing hope and hurt), a smart, sensitive boy who has been living in foster care while she was incarcerated, and who is trying to come to terms with his sexuality. This rapprochement will be painfully difficult to accomplish on many levels. And “B’s” serious crush on fellow high school student Simon (pitch-perfect work by Louis Rinaldi) — who uses him for sexual favors (and a supply of marijuana), but has no interest in being perceived as gay – leaves the boy angry, isolated and ready to strike out at his long-absent mother.
Andy’s attempt to forge a friendship with Sarah (played with grace by Darci Nalepa) — a woman she casually encounters in a supermarket, and with who she seems to share a certain loneliness, though neither is willing to admit it — quickly becomes unworkable, too. Sarah never learns the truth of Andy’s background, and her own privileged life is at such odds with Andy’s that an abrupt break over coffee is inevitable.
The true agony here is that everyone is desperate for some form of love, affirmation and happiness, yet they have been so broken along the way in life, and are so unable to break through the wall of self-protection, that these things continually elude them.
Koogler’s play erupts in short, superbly limned scenes, and Barry’s edgy, bare knuckles direction matches it note for note. Dan Stratton’s set (plastic freezer curtains and aluminum siding walls) captures the hardness and chill of the lives of most of these people, with pieces of furniture zooming in an out of view in a way that echoes the characters’ anguish.
This is for certain: Paparelli would be applauding for “Kill Floor.”