by Carole Di Tosti
The Triangle Waist Company fire which occurred 25 March, 1911 will go down in New York City history as one of the most egregious examples of negligence, rapacity and the presumption of privilege by the company’s owners. Tragically, the owners were never held accountable for the disastrous fire that consumed three floors in a conflagration that caused one-hundred-forty-six needless deaths. The Chatillion Stage Company’s presentation of its World Premiere of Fire by Debra Whitfield, superbly directed by Benjamin Viertel is a long overdue memorial to those who perished on that fateful day. And it is an uplifting account of those who survived and then gave testimony of what happened so that such a horrific incident might never occur again.
The playwright carefully reconstructs events that portray symbolic scenarios between and among the types of individuals who worked at the factory. Industrious, non-unionized, subservient immigrants, they yearned to capture the golden treasure that they were told paved American streets. Intermingled with these homely scenarios between an Italian mother and daughter, between an orthodox Jewish father and son, between a young couple who falls in love are the scenes that take place at the factory.
The factory scenes reveal the dynamic between the owner and employees, the employees’ friendships and work roles, and their relationships with each other. A clear portrait evolves of the strict expectations of nefarious Mr. Blanck (a very fine portrayal by Jay Russell) owner of the company and his dutiful, hard-working employees.
Because so many poor immigrants at the time were looking for work and the competition for jobs was overwhelming, Mr. Blanck exploits his workers with callous gentility. If they even whisper about pay raises, he suggests they look for work elsewhere. Not only are they replaceable, their work conditions are unsafe and their hours are long. However, then as now, immigrants have little choice. Returning back to their country of origin is not an option.
The playwright uses a clever arc of development to unfold the various stories that lead up to the day of the fire and afterward. Because of her choices the suspense increases and when she explodes the climax, we feel the terror and horror of the employees who face death and the shock and sorrow of those who manage to save themselves on that day of infamy.
Whitfield alternates time sequences to reconstruct the overall narrative puzzle. She pits flashbacks before the fire with flash-forwards after the fire. Flashbacks weeks before the fire, jump to scenes hours before the fire, then jump to the time the fire erupted. These scenes are interspersed with events that occur months afterward when the company owners are tried for criminal negligence. During the courtroom scenes, the judge hears the arguments between the defense and the prosecution. Whitfield reveals the owners’ culpability with hyperbole and irony. And she discloses how the owners did not incur any jail time and paid nominal damages when they were sued civilly, a rank injustice.
The cast is exceptional in portraying the lives of the individuals who worked at the factory. Because the playwright reveals their personal dreams in flashbacks, we empathize with them all the more. The cast members’ exquisite talents along with the director’s acute skill in shepherding them toward the inevitability of horror, keep us enthralled, throughout, even though we know the outcome to be mortality and destruction.
The artful design team’s symbolic and evocative conflagration, coupled with the director’s staging and the acting ensemble’s believable responses are heart-breaking and suggestive of what happened. Additionally, the dance sequences toward the conclusion symbolize those who jumped to their deaths rather than walk into the raging inferno, inhale the flames, sear their lungs and burn alive.
Additional kudos go to Fire’s design team: scenic and projection design, costume, hair and make-up design, lighting and original music and sound design. Every element of this production shines unified coherence. And combined with the acting and direction, this memorable production will touch the hearts of those who see it, one that native New Yorkers should never forget.
Most significantly, Fire’s currency for today is unmistakable. Corporate entities still exploit their workers and seek to do so in countries without stringent laws. And in our country regulations are being dismantled as you read this. Fire reminds us that we must be ever vigilant to hold rapacious corporate entities accountable.
Photos: Russ Rowland
Fire (244 West Fifty-fourth St., Floor 12) runs ninety minutes without an intermission until 28 October. For tickets: http://firetheplay.com/tickets.htm