Mickey Birnbaum's darkly metaphorical drama about workers in a Midwestern slaughterhouse is stunningly provocative. Transcendent performances from a gifted ensemble and dead-on direction by Jessica Kubzansky make for a memorable evening of theatre.
The setting is bleak and ferocious: the assembly-line killing of cattle, where Ryan (Dennis Flanagan), Justin (Josh Clark), and Jim the Hanger (Hugo Armstrong) work hour after hour eviscerating cows who are hanging on hooks, many in their last twitches of life, others still struggling to survive. These are literal dead-end jobs, but the men have no hope for the future and cling to the slaughterhouse work as their lifelines.
And life outside isn't much better. Keith (Cyrus Alexander) works at a burger joint that feels like a straight shot from the slaughterhouse floor, delivering burgers via a chute that might well be covered with fresh cow blood. When a very pregnant teenage Jewel (Lily Holleman) walks into the burger joint and offers to take her clothes off in exchange for something to eat, an abyss of relationships yawns open.
On the most basic level, Birnbaum's play recounts the horror of the slaughterhouse and the pain, physical and psychological, that slaughterhouse workers surely endure. However, the play quickly ascends to a broader metaphor, as we venture into the moral landscape beyond the slaughterhouse, where violence and cruelty also reign. In Birnbaum's universe, modern society is an extension of the slaughterhouse, where it is not our bodies but our souls that are being eviscerated. It may begin with the culture of the postindustrial carnivore, but it soon expands to a moral killing fields. While there is a message of hope and redemption at the end, the play still paints a bloody prophecy of destruction.
In the hands of less-talented performers and director, this play might strike an impossibly dark note. However, Kubzansky and this very gifted cast underscore the existentially comic predicament of all the characters. Flanagan is a wonderfully believable Everyman as the young idealist trapped in hell, while Clark is vivid and sardonic as his bleed-rail mentor. Alexander is crisply engaging as the hamburger jockey and erstwhile roommate.
Especially marvelous are the performances of Armstrong and Holleman. Armstrong conjures an almost mythical energy as the otherworldly Jim the Hanger, and Holleman is powerful and crudely insouciant as the hopelessly lost teenage girl. Sets by Susan Gratch, costumes by Robert Prior, and sound design by John Zalewski add considerably to this bleakly triumphant production.
Presented by and at Theatre@Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. May 12-Jun. 17. (626) 683-6883. www.bostoncourt.org.