Evanston Salt Costs Climbing
November 16 – December 18, 2022
Working for nonprofits, public works, or other “do-good” organizations is far from glamorous. The purpose is seemingly grand; the pay is usually little. Those toiling in these positions may, at their lowest, envy the numbing glory of, say, finance jobs: analysts crunch numbers, work in a high-pressure office, and then do a line of coke to forget—or, at least that’s a narrative Hollywood has sold. True or not, one certain reality is that do-good jobs don’t pay enough for its workers to afford coke. And so they are left to feel.
And the feeling is harder than the labor—or perhaps intrinsically tied to it. Such workers strive not for their own betterment but a group’s, and that pressure haunts. Societal obstacles and inequities generate public workers’ employment. “You’re doing some little good in the name of a Greater Good,” each worker’s job description might read. But if that Good is never met, do its strivers feel continued failure? And if it is, what becomes of their purpose?
That purpose might be unlocked through small effort after small effort, or what Maiworm in Will Arbery’s Evanston Salt Costs Climbing calls a “tininess.” This phrasing and use of language, accessible but slightly off-kilter, permeates Arbery’s play, a bleak workplace comedy about street salters in the titular Chicago suburb.
Maiworm (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is a public works leader who has nightmares about futuristic roads that will self-heat during snowstorms, rendering her team of salters obsolete. This technology would be more efficient, affordable, and eco-friendly as salt dehydrates the soil it infiltrates and threatens its biodiversity.
The advancement, then, would accomplish some Good. “Administration is service,” Maiworm says, which gives her work a divine ring. But service in whose name? The neighbors who drive on icy roads? The salters like Basil (Ken Leung) and Peter (Jeb Kreager) who depend on Maiworm for a livelihood? Her stuck daughter Jane (Rachel Sachnoff), who might understand city connectivity through Maiworm’s small role?
Arbery’s plays are generous gifts, but they do not give answers. A lesser play would highlight public workers and praise their unsung efforts, but that’s not what Arbery is chasing; instead, he reveals four people’s deep fears and how technological and climate change exacerbate them. Staring into the pit of that cultural shift, Arbery illuminates—as he did in the beautiful Corsicana that premiered this summer at Playwrights Horizons—a quartet of characters trying and failing to care for one another, or at least locate a shared language.
Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, directed by Danya Taymor and produced by The New Group, is a song for the striving: a love letter to those who feel too much, who can’t help but give and give of themselves even if it comes at their own expense. Such characters exist throughout Arbery’s other plays, including the wounded Emily in Heroes of the Fourth Turning and saintly Isabel in Plano.
Here, Maiworm and Basil and Peter and Jane all want to… well, it’s hard to cleanly state. Jane tries to articulate what generosity, service, and community care can look like, but the words don’t come. So she brings her hands to her chest and thrusts them outward in a motion of unconditional giving.
“But instead,” she says, “I just…”
And then she physicalizes the opposite: she takes and takes and takes.
There’s no neat way to balance how much we take and how much we give. It’s difficult to measure. Arbery does not supply a formula, but he does help make it more visible, which is to say, more elusive.