Derek Goldman and Jessica Thebus’s recounting of a shameful chapter in Chicago history is agitprop at its best, portraying the martyrdom of five innocent workers whose crime was a belief in the eight-hour workday. Part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s Arts Exchange Program, this absorbing 90-minute depiction of labor’s fight for justice focuses on a single day–May 4, 1886–when a bomb thrown at a labor rally in Haymarket Square killed seven cops, triggering a witch-hunt. The bomb thrower was never found, but the anarchist movement was ruthlessly suppressed. The noblest act in this sordid story was Governor John Peter Altgeld’s pardon of three of the accused anarchists (one had already killed himself rather than be hanged, and four others had already been executed). Never preachy, the vibrant script supplies the historical context that made the repression possible, notably a fear of foreign-born citizens who demanded their share of the profits. Unifying this many-sided saga is the doomed romance between an idealistic German-American reporter and a woman who fears poverty more than she loves the truth. Director Louis Contey’s superb ensemble deliver persuasive portraits, especially Randy Bame as the infamous instigating police commander, Meagen Thomas as a socialite turned socialist who paid a heavy price for “betraying” her class, and Romanos Isaac and Arie Thompson as Albert and Lucy Parsons, ardent crusaders for the common man. The playwrights’ one failure of nerve is their soft-pedaling of Altgeld’s bravery in pardoning the surviving scapegoats. Otherwise, Haymarket Eight is as bold as its subject. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650. Through May 29: Saturdays, noon. $10.

–Lawrence Bommer

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.