THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE PROJECT
The Triangel Factory Fire Project
ELJ All Arts Annex
Kessa Di Santis
May 20, 2004
On March 25, 1911 a rapid blaze at the Triangle Waist Company, a factory near Washington Square Park in Manhattan, led to the deaths of one hundred forty-six workers, most within 25 minutes from when the fire began. One stairwell exit was locked, a fire escape collapsed, and even the fire departmentís tallest ladder could not reach beyond the sixth floor of the ten story building. The fire consumed the top three floors. Following the inferno, the owners of the factory went on trial for manslaughter. In circumstances hauntingly familiar to the September 11, 2001 hearings being held now in 2004, the New York community of the 1910ís fell into a public frenzy and debate about the causes and effects of the fire. Fingers were pointed, and people tried to lay blame, but no degree of outcry could bring back the dead.
The ambitious play, THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE PROJECT, recounts the infamous 1911 tragedy by drawing, in large part, from newspaper accounts and court testimony. The end result is an ensemble piece that employs the familiar confessional style that has become popular through recent works like THE EXONERATED, but that is also rich with dramatic details, making this piece a full-fledged play in the more traditional sense.
Eerily suggestive of real life recent tragic events, most poignantly the September 11 attacks on the World Trade towers, THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE PROJECT reminds the audience that there is something constant in the emotions connected to massive loss and unimaginable destruction. While there is no explicit or grotesque action in this engrossing piece, there are chillingly detailed descriptions of the desperation of the victims. As narrated by journalist/eye witness William Shepard (Jamie Bennett), we are faced with the reality that was. Worker after worker, most young immigrant women, jumps from the burning building, falling with a thud. At first, Shepard recalls, the jumpers try to land feet down. They become broken bodies as they hit the ground, but they are recognizable people. Soon, the scene shifts, and burning bodies fall from the factory floors, coming down in a frenzy, and landing charred and beyond recognition. This is but a hint of the detail that author Piehler includes. It is so effective and affecting that it becomes almost mesmerizing.
The downside to a style that mainly relies on victim testimonials can be that, as every member of the ensemble cast portrays multiple characters, it is hard to find one story that stands out. That does not happen in THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE PROJECT. Here, the choice has been made to focus particular attention on one woman who perished in the fire, Margaret Schwartz, and in an ironic nod to the larger issue of the true meaning of justice, to have the actor who plays her (Rachel Fowler) also portray Judge C.T. Crain, who presided over the manslaughter trial of Triangle Waist Company owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck (played by Jamie Bennett and Timothy McCracken respectively).
In the end, it feels as if the fire was another of those horrible American milestones that, whilst generating uproar at the time, over the long haul did not teach us very much. For, there are still woefully disregarded safety codes, locked doors, blocked exits, unsafe working conditions and general unprepared-ness. There is still preventable loss and genuine tragedy. Above all things, THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE PROJECT left me with an appropriate sense of sadness over what was, and what remains a harsh reality; to some people, other people are dispensable.
While it may seem incongruous, what TACT and Christopher Piehler have created with THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE PROJECT is something beautiful. It is a tribute, a cautionary tale, a social commentary, and just plain old theater. Ultimately, though, it tells the story of the Triangle Waist Company victims with respect, and a good dose of outrage. If I sat in the theater feeling that same knot in my stomach that I do whenever I see footage of that second plane shearing through the Towers, it was because I could appreciate these characters onstage for the people they once were. These are real life events that people just like us lived through. This is a sad chapter, but it is also cathartic to see it dramatized.
In a century from now, I can only imagine that some theater company will be telling the tale of our life and times in similar fashion. I can only hope that plays like THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE PROJECT serve as a blueprint for how to do it right, and with deference. If you can handle the material, do see this play. It is something.