Workingman's Beef | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Workingman's Beef 

Laura Jacqmin’s new play investigates the factory farm.

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Dead Pile

Dead Pile

Michael Litchfield


"Eating is an agricultural act," observes Wendell Berry in his 1989 essay "The Pleasures of Eating." But—as anyone who's seen Robert Kenner's documentary Food, Inc., can attest—the acts committed on behalf of our palates are often industrial and brutal. In Dead Pile, now receiving its world premiere in a XIII Pocket production at Stage 773, playwright Laura Jacqmin takes aim at factory farming. The show occasionally feels as if it's shooting at moral gnats while missing the swarm, but it also gives voice to a group too often left out of debates about food policy: the workers.

Jeremy is an undercover investigator for a nameless animal-rights nonprofit, sent to a dairy outfit in southern Indiana on an anonymous tip about cruel treatment of the cows there. His insufferable superior in Chicago, Davey, warns him that "your being black is a liability," but Jeremy's race doesn't much figure into the story: he gets hired and starts mixing with the rest of the hands pretty quickly. The real conflict arises from Jeremy's discovery that there are no easy villains—or solutions—when it comes to transforming how humans feed themselves.

Though Davey insists that "everything these people do implicates them," Jeremy finds that Russell, the presumptive heir to the farm, has big plans to go organic once his never-seen father kicks off. "That shit I can't wait to fix," Russell says of the old man's methods. "And if it ain't broke enough, I'll break it."

But Russell seems powerless to do anything about the rotten wages dad pays out. That parsimony falls heaviest on R.J., an Angry White Male described by Russell as "the only man I know who curses at ESPN Classic." But it also bedevils sweet, hapless Nance, whose family lost their own farm. Nance embarks on a kinda, sorta love affair with Jeremy, mostly prompted by her hope that he'll save her from having to muck out cow manure year after year for seven bucks an hour. As she notes, farm work pays enough to keep you going, but not to take you anywhere better. Mike Mroch's set made of junk and movable metal fencing neatly suggests that the workers are as penned in as the livestock.

The title refers to a gruesome pit that Jeremy first hears about from R.J. Diseased and dead cows are dumped in it—rather like the hoof-and-mouth-infected herd in Martin Ritt's 1963 movie, Hud. Tasked by Davey with getting surreptitious footage of cows being killed or abused, Jeremy is aghast when Davey excoriates him for taking too much of an interest in protecting the animals while undercover. "Your job is to watch it happen and not do anything," Davey says—a dilemma that Jeremy shares with reporters on the ground in disaster zones.

Moral ambiguity is one of the great strengths in Jacqmin's script, but narrative ambiguity is one of its most pronounced weaknesses. The biggest puzzle is Jeremy himself. What prompted him to take on the difficult and potentially dangerous work of farm investigation? We don't learn much about him, aside from a story he tells Nance about a disabled brother in an institution—and that's vague enough that I wondered by play's end whether it's supposed to be believed. Keeping Davey onstage nearly throughout also creates confusion, suggesting that Davey has a powerful hold on his operative when Justin James Farley's Jeremy often expresses barely concealed contempt for him. We need more of a sense of who Jeremy is so that his character can take on the moral burdens of the story. As it is, the ending feels as vague as Jeremy's brother: Though it seems to want to make a statement on the restlessness and rootlessness of the professional activist, it comes across as a matter of a playwright unsure of what to do with the character she's created.

Still, both Jacqmin's script and Megan Shuchman's staging allow moments of unforced honesty to sprout up organically throughout Dead Pile. Aside from Chip Davis's Davey, who's nothing but the Smug Urban Liberal Elite mannerisms, the rest of the characters—even Andy Lutz's tinderbox R.J.—are allowed flashes of human grace and frailty. Like R.J. finding a rare coin in a manure heap early in the play, Jacqmin pulls hope for humane practices—towards animals and people alike—from the dead pile of factory farming.

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