Theater review: 'Up From the Ashes' and the Triangle fire

Isa St. Clair channels the spirits of Mother Jones and others in the world premiere of "Up From the Ashes," presented by the Iron Age Theatre.
Isa St. Clair channels the spirits of Mother Jones and others in the world premiere of "Up From the Ashes," presented by the Iron Age Theatre. (STEPHANIE DOYLE)
Posted: January 17, 2014

'What appalls you about your job?"

Actor Isa St. Clair asks this question during Iron Age Theatre's world premiere of Kate McGrath's Up From the Ashes. It's a brief (one hour and change) overview of the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the birth of the women's labor movement. It's a good question, if not a rallying cry. I'd wager Iron Age audiences are rarely subjected to the types of dangers that killed 147 mostly very young, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant, mostly female factory employees in what would remain New York City's largest mass casualty until Sept. 11, 2001.

St. Clair plays a ghost channeling the spirits of organizers and witnesses past, among them Mother Jones; Rose Freedman, the fire's longest-lived survivor; and a gentleman who offers a wrenching firsthand account as he watches bodies plummet from the "fireproof" building's burning ninth story.

Directed by John Doyle, and aided by archival photos of people and places surrounding the event and projected on a screen, bolts of cloth standing in for fallen workers, St. Clair darts in and out of character and era, a friendly, engaging guide (though a rag doll she carries undermines the seriousness of her efforts - it might be more effective either worn in, or more realistic, an antique china doll, perhaps).

Friendly and engaging are good qualities for this show, which has an educational rather than artistic aesthetic and trades in some truly heartrending material.

But one of the few times McGrath indulges in a bit of dramatic license, comparing the thuds of leaping Triangle workers' bodies hitting the ground to those of Twin Towers workers, it feels more like exploitation than connection. The April 2013 factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or the Sept. 11, 2012, factory fires in Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan, mentioned briefly at the top of the show, make a better fit.

After all, although no amount of OSHA regulation could have stopped the Twin Towers from falling, we appear to have exported our early-20th-century working conditions overseas, and have the power to do something about it.

McGrath also frequently mentions the changes wrought by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. She neglects to add its 1995 dissolution. What's most absent from this otherwise interesting production is its most important message: Past is prologue.


THEATER REVIEW

Up From the Ashes

Presented by the Iron Age Theatre at Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St. Through Sunday.

Tickets: $10-$20.

Information: 610-279-1013 or IronAgeTheatre.org.

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