THE GREAT DIVIDE by Alix Sobler (Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company). Runs to May 15 at the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (5040 Yonge). $30.09-$87.59. hgjewishtheatre.com. Rating: NNNN
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 remains one of the worst workplace disasters in American history. Trapped on the ninth floor of the Lower East Side sweatshop, 146 workers – most of them young immigrant women – died, their corpses found in the building or, having jumped out windows, on the street.
Alix Sobler’s moving and intelligent play gives context and voice to a handful of the disaster’s victims, as well as some survivors. And the storytelling approach she uses makes the play more intriguing than a straight chronological account.
Rosa (Tal Gottfried) gathers four friends to tell a story. They’ve all done this many times before, but something is compelling her to do it again. And so they take on characters, don a cap or two (Alex Amini designed the authentic-looking period costumes) and, on the bare wooden platform of Brian Dudkiewicz’s set, take their places to dramatize her life.
It is a familiar tale of growing up Jewish in poverty and uncertainty in an unnamed Russian village in the early 20th century, dreaming of a better life in America. Soon Rosa and her sister Sadie (Mairi Babb) are heading to New York on a ship, where they hope to find work to send money back to their family so they can eventually join them.
Once there, however, they realize that life is just as difficult for immigrants; when Rosa gets a job as a seamstress, she works long hours doing repetitive work for low wages. The factory’s foreman, Max (Darrin Baker), is strict, but Rosa does find friends in co-workers Manya (Sarah Gibbons), another Jewish immigrant, and Sophie (Babb), who’s from Italy. There’s even some interest from a male co-worker, Jacob (Lawrence Libor). And there are little pleasures, like picture shows and walks on days off.
Inspired by real-life activist and union organizer Clara Lemlich (Babb), Rosa and Manya join 1909’s Uprising of 20,000, in which garment workers went on strike for better wages and hours. But working conditions are still bad in the factory – the owners lock the workers in the shop to prevent theft – and within a couple of years they will be caught in the fire.
This isn’t a spoiler. We know at the start that Rosa and her friends have died. And there’s real poignancy in the way some of the characters try to rewrite history; Rosa wishes, for instance, that she had hugged her brother before she left Russia; and even foreman Max feels guilt over his role in the events. One of the most moving passages comes when Manya, hoping to escape her fate, imagines an alternate life for herself where she gets married and has children.
Director Avery Saltzman’s production is filled with haunting touches. In Lyon Smith’s sound design a lit match becomes a disturbing sonic motif, while the wooden backdrop of Dudkiewicz’s set, subtly lit by Siobhán Sleath, suggests the tragedy’s victims unable to break out.
Saltzman gets clear, focused performances from all the actors. Gottfried is especially moving as the passionate Rosa, who feels compelled to tell her story.
In a way, Sobler’s script forces us to consider why we tell and listen to stories. To think about what it means to be alive. To honour the dead. To respect their lives and give them some dignity they might not have had as a mere statistic in a news story. But there’s also a larger social and political aspect. Perhaps we tell stories to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again, although, as workplace conditions in China, India and elsewhere prove, they still might.