Review: The Great Divide brings a harrowing true story to life
Alix Sobler’s award-winning play about the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire receives a deeply moving staging
THE GRAND DIVISION by Alix Sobler (Harold Green Jewish Theater Company). Until May 15 at the Greenwin Theater of the Meridian Arts Center (5040 Yonge). $30.09 – $87.59. hgjewishtheatre.com. Evaluation: 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 – mostly young immigrant women – died, their bodies found in the building or, having jumped out of windows, onto the street.
Alix Sobler’s moving and intelligent piece gives context and voice to a handful of disaster victims, as well as a few survivors. And the narrative approach she uses makes the piece more intriguing than a simple chronological narrative.
Rosa (Tal Gottfried) brings together four friends to tell a story. They’ve all done it many times before, but something drives her to do it again. So they take 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 his life. .
It is the familiar story of a Jewish childhood 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 boat, where they hope to find work to send money 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 jobs for low pay. Factory foreman Max (Darrin Baker) is strict, but Rosa finds friends among her co-workers Manya (Sarah Gibbons), another Jewish immigrant, and Sophie (Babb), who is from Italy. There’s even some interest from a male colleague, Jacob (Lawrence Libor). And there are little pleasures, like photo shoots and walks on rest days.
Inspired by real-life labor activist and organizer Clara Lemlich (Babb), Rosa and Manya join the 20,000 Uprising of 1909, 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 store to prevent thefts – and in a few years they will be caught in the fire.
This is not a spoiler. It is initially known that Rosa and her friends are deceased. And there’s real emotion in the way certain characters attempt to rewrite history; Rosa wishes, for example, to have kissed her brother before leaving Russia; and even Foreman Max feels guilty for his role in the events. One of the most moving moments comes when Manya, hoping to escape her fate, imagines an alternative life where she marries and has children.
Director Avery Saltzman’s production is filled with haunting touches. In sound design by Lyon Smith, a lit match becomes an ominous sound pattern, while the wooden backdrop of Dudkiewicz’s set, subtly lit by Siobhán Sleath, suggests the victims of tragedy unable to burst.
Saltzman gets clear, focused performances from all cast. Gottfried is particularly moving as the passionate Rosa, who feels compelled to tell her story.
In a way, Sobler’s script forces us to ask ourselves why we tell and listen to stories. Thinking about what it means to be alive. To honor the dead. To respect their lives and give them a certain dignity that they might not have had as a simple statistic in a report. But there is also a broader social and political aspect. Maybe we’re telling stories to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again, although, as working conditions in China, India and elsewhere prove, it’s still possible.