Iron Age Theatre Brings Tragedy to Life with UP FROM THE ASHES

by Walter Bender

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York on March 25, 1911 was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of New York…in fact, it resulted in the greatest loss of life until the World Trade Center attack in 2001. One hundred fourty-six workers, mainly women and children, either were burned to death, died from smoke inhalation, or fell or jumped to their deaths. An additional 71 people were injured. This tragedy is the basis of UP FROM THE ASHES, a one-woman show written by Kate McGrath, performed by Isa St. Clair, produced by the Iron Age Theatre company in Norristown.

St. Clair is our guide, our narrator, and the ghosts of stories past…Mother Jones (a pre-eminent women’s activist of the era), Rose Freedman (the longest-lived survivor of the tragedy), and a bystander who gives a “first-hand” account of watching people jump from the ninth floor to avoid the flames. She moves seamlessly from character to character, alternately lecturing, story-telling, and preaching. Her characters are distinct, separate, and as far as we can determine, spot-on. Accents are consistent, body language conveys language and cultural differences…a wonderful performance.

The material is, as you might imagine, rather lacking in humor, but McGrath manages to keep the audience engaged and involved without depressing the group. The story is told, more from an educational aspect than entertainment, but it doesn’t feel like a lecture. Rather, the audience is made to feel that they are a part of the time without experiencing the horror first-hand. There was a tendency to be a bit heavy-handed at times, the ending a bit preachy, and some unfortunate comparisons to other tragedies, but these were outweighed by the performance itself.
Accompanying the performance is a series of slides of the factory, the building, workers from the era, and other archival pictures to convey the feelings of the characters as well as the story itself. There was a bit of a music background at times to help move the audience emotionally along the story.

The direction was tight and understated, allowing St. Clair to use her considerable energy to move the story along. The set was minimal and functional, albeit a bit too spread out. It filled the space, but lost a bit of intimacy on the edges.

This is a limited run production, closing after one weekend in Norristown and moving to Philadelphia immediately thereafter. The show is short (just over one hour) but the story is timeless, and worth the evening’s visit.

By Kate McGrath
Featuring Isa St. Clair
Directed and Produced by John Doyle
Moving to the Off Broad Street Theatre on Sansom Street, Philadelphia
January 17-19, 2014
Iron Age Theatre Company

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