With minimal set design and plenty of drama, the small space at the Weekend Theater transformed into early-20th-century Manhattan — complete with suffragists, shouting newsboys and union agitation.
Playwright Christopher Piehler, in collaboration with Scott Alan Evans, composed a heart-wrenching narrative based on the factual events surrounding the horrific fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.
In 1911, 146 factory workers, overwhelmingly young immigrant women from Italy and Eastern Europe, perished when fire consumed the garment company’s production space. The hazardous and inhumane work conditions that contributed to their deaths included the use of gas lanterns in rooms piled with flammable fabric and paper clothing patterns, a locked exit door, weak fire escape and the lack of a sprinkler system. Many of the victims, desperate to flee the flames, leapt through windows and died on the sidewalk below; among the dead were a host of bodies burnt so badly they were rendered unrecognizable.
The Weekend Theater’s production, directed by Frank O. Butler, focused on the death of Margaret Schwartz, a central victim in a criminal case against the factory owners. Lisa Costello, a debut performer at the theater, played the role of Margaret’s mother, Bertha Schwartz. Costello imbued her role as grieving mother with all the force of emotion she could muster. In a scene where relatives are searching the morgue for their loved ones, Costello repeatedly enters holding a framed picture of her daughter. With each entrance her grief deepens steadily, as she implores the morgue official to tell her if he’s seen her daughter, until she is finally raging with fear.
The bare-bones set, nothing more than a table, staircase, and loft built of unvarnished wood beams, demanded that all embellishment be delivered by the performers. Each actor, depicting a factory worker, stepped out from beneath the shadow of the loft, addressed the audience directly, and told of the day’s events through a personal monologue. The charm of the production resided in the seemingly mundane, yet intricate details — learning from a soon-to-be-victim that she had just gotten engaged to be married, hearing that a woman had been saving her wages in order to bring her sister over to America.
The cast delivered sturdy performances, using an austere backdrop to highlight the fact that the most important part of this story is the people. The tragedy so stirred the city’s inhabitants that it incited a flurry of legislative labor reform, and spurred union enrollment and activity.