Theatre Jacksonville opened its first production of 2013 with the searing and moving “The Triangle Factory Fire Project” by Christopher Piehler and Scott Alan Evans. This ambitious play will be presented through March 16 at 2032 San Marco Boulevard, with reservations available at (904) 396-4425.
“The Triangle Factory Fire Project” portrays the infamous fire on March 25, 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in downtown New York, using newspaper accounts and court testimony. It is very much an ensemble piece that features thirteen exceptional performers under the direction of ROXANNE LEWIS, who is making her Theatre Jacksonville debut as a Director/Choreographer.
The play opens with all the cast members on stage portraying citizens of the time, as they relate information about how life was lived in 1909-1911 to the audience. They tell us about popular foods, clothing, and entertainment. Soon, they begin describing the working conditions at the ten-story building where hundreds of workers of all ages, mostly young immigrant women, are employed in manufacturing blouses for women. Working conditions were poor; there were no child labor laws, the workers had no labor union representation, and the profit motive was the driving force behind the management practices of the greedy factory owners.
The fire started on the eighth floor from an undetermined source. The result was disastrous; 146 workers died within 25 minutes after the flames started. Many died jumping from the building, or down elevator shafts, others died from the direct effects of the flames or from smoke inhalation. Why did this happen? One stairwell exit was reported locked, the nets used by the fire department broke from the weight of several of the victims jumping at the same time, an accessible exterior fire escape crumpled, and the fire department’s tallest ladder could only reach to the sixth floor of the ten-story building. This devastating fire consumed the top three floors.
The first act depicting the fire is dynamically portrayed, and as an audience we felt as if we were actually seeing the blaze before us. This was achieved with some terrific lighting and special effects by Theatre Jacksonville’s new Lighting/Set Designer DAVID LYNN DAWSON. While smoke appears to fill the stage and take on the red glow of the fire, it is actually a fog machine producing a colorless and odorless vapor which never reaches the audience.
The first act is where Director Lewis’s extensive experience as a choreographer for productions all over the world comes into play. She has managed to capture the ensuing panic, with the helter-skelter running and cries for help that one expects in an incident of this magnitude. Ms. Lewis could not have done it without an exceptionally devoted and hardworking cast. With the exception of two performers, all the actors play two or three roles, frequently going backstage to quickly don a costume to change their appearance or character.
The second act presents the manslaughter trial of company owners Issac Harris (MICHAEL RAY) and Max Blanck (THOMAS TRAUGER), in a courtroom presided over by Judge C. T. Crain (ALLEN MORTON). Because so many died, the play focuses on one victim, Margaret Schwartz (GISELLA NIETO). AL EMERICK, who appears in Act One as William Shepherd, a newspaper reporter narrating the play, is the Prosecuting Attorney Charles Bostwick in Act Two. Much of the testimony at the trial was concerned with proving or disproving whether the door on the eighth floor was really locked.
Harris and Blanck were acquitted of manslaughter charges, and received compensation from the company’s insurer of about $400 for the death of each person. The play raises the question of whether justice was served when they lost a civil suit and were subsequently required to pay the families of the workers just $75 in compensation for each victim.
The trial and the publicity brought some reform but we know from national and worldwide events of recent vintage that working conditions are unsafe and fires still happen; safety codes are disregarded, doors are locked and exits are blocked, and people still die in large numbers.
As we have mentioned, Technical Director and Lighting and Scenic Designer David Lynn Dawson created an incredible set for this production that was strikingly minimalist, with a two-tiered floor to ceiling interior, with stairs on either side, that was flooded at times with color.
TRACY OLIN’s costumes were, as usual, period perfect, with long skirts and shirtwaist blouses in creams and beiges for the women, while men wear vests and suits matching the era. The production Stage Manager was RACHAEL DELANO.
This production was sponsored in part by Firehouse Subs, a very successful sandwich shop chain founded in Jacksonville by two former firemen, the Sorenson brothers. Firehouse Subs has done much to improve the life-saving capabilities of firemen and policemen and also funds disaster relief with generous donations from their Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation (see which to date has donated more than $5.7 million dollars throughout the USA and Puerto Rico.
The others in this excellent cast, which is a wonderful mix of local veteran performers and those new to the acting scene include SOMMER FARHAT, CAROLINE LEE, KENNY LOGSDON, JOHN OWEN, BRANDON PARIS, JOSEPH STEARMAN AND VANESSA WARNER. The youngest member of this cast is fifteen year old HADLEY PARRISH-COTTON, a freshman musical theatre major at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts.