By Bob Evans
Turn of the century fire in New York City’s garment district leaves 146 dead, while necessary safety changes lag because of owner greed and the lack of respect for young immigrant women who toil in sweat-shop like conditions, in Summit Theatre Group’s new production that opened Friday, March 16.
Christopher Piehler’s “The Triangle Factory Fire Project” recreates the events of the 1911disasterous fire that swept the upper floors of a New York sewing factory where those trapped burned to death, leapt out windows to their death, or were found at the bottom of an elevator shaft trying to escape the flames. Historic dramas seldom end well, and the result cannot change, but they do allow viewers to see a small piece of the reality faced by the characters.
For this production, the director, Mark Hamilton, chose to break the play into two acts and add an intermission. The play, heavy on the drama, breaks at the end of the fire and resumes as court proceedings begin. The break works well and gives the audience a brief respite from what they just viewed.
Working conditions in factories were less than adequate, and this was a time when labor unions were beginning to get a foot-hold. Women went on strike for better pay, shorter hours, and conditions, but pay only increased slightly, hours were shortened a bit, but conditions did not generally improve. And this was also the time when women were starting to organize and demand the right to vote. Until then, their voices went generally unnoticed, according to the play.
Strong acting performances by the cast made the story believable and beautifully kept the focus on the lives that were affected by the tragedy. The cast did a great job of remaining in character and portraying the hopes, fears, and pain of the situation. The play provided the actors to display their art with full-bodied performances that change as the play progresses. Kudos to the cast and the director.
In “The Triangle Factory Fire Project” a locked door prevented many workers, mostly women, from escaping a raging inferno. Rescue ladders only reached to the third floor. The sewing factory, located on floors 8,9, and 10, burned quickly as flames spread, claiming lives. The path to safety only allowed access to one flight of stairs. The tragedy highlights the need for safety procedures then and now.
Of special note is the voice of the playwright as he opens the story with the characters speaking the headlines of the day in a strong newspaper headlinese voice. That helps set the tone for the story to follow and the events that later play into the story-line. The undecorated, wood set also adds to the production in that it’s hard, stark, and makes the audience feel like they can see the interior structure of the factory. Period costumes bring the reality to the show as well.
The story revolves around the plight of the young women who worked the factory, History tells that the factory workers were predominately young immigrant females who worked for small wages. The story focuses on the locked door that prevented the workers’ escape because the factory inspected their handbags upon exit daily via one doorway. The daily handbag inspection was to prevent theft, which was later shown to be insignificant, considering the tragedy that occurred.
Casting featured a nice blend of actors and ages to tell the story. The cast is: Jonah Beard, Eli Biesemeyer, Jeannie Blau, Elaine Christiansen, Ted Collins, Kelly Crosby, Casye Davidson, Kristi Hibschman, Brittany Hill, Emily Jennings, Lindsay Lovejoy, Marshall Rimann, Kenneth J. Schwartze, Jaggard Lee Williams.
The production team is: Mark Robinson, director; Betsy Sexton, stage manager; Ed Leonard, set design; Kristin Lee Cook, costume designer; Philip Leonard, lighting designer; Jon Specht, sound designer; Tom Eagle, smoke and haze effects.
“The Triangle Factory Fire project” continues for one more weekend, March 23-25 at MCC Longview Campus in the Cultural Arts Center. Opening night drew an near-sold out performance, so advance ticketing is requested to avoid shut outs at the box office. Tickets can be purchases through the Summit Theatre Group website.
Tags: Lees Summit, Summit Theatre Group, “The Triangle Factory Fire Project”, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment, Longview Community College