UP FROM THE ASHES (Iron Age Theatre): A bit shy of genius

Photo by John Doyle
Photo by John Doyle


Saturday, March 25th, 1911, 4:40pm a fire broke out on the eighth floor of largest blouse making factory in New York City, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

18 minutes later 146 shirtwaist makers: cloth cutters, belt boys, button punches, button sewers, machinists, examiners, tuckers, foreladies, lace cutters, lace runners, embroidery trimmers, finishers, sewing machine operators, yolk setters, cuff setters, body makers, sleeve setters, sleeve makers, collar makers, collar setters, closers, hemmers, joiners, pressers were dead. Note the tragic Greek irony here: A large majority of the garment workers who perished in the fire were female, and the shirtwaist-button-down was the 19th Century model blouse for the independent working-woman.

The world premiere of Kate McGrath’s UP FROM THE ASHES, the curtain raiser of the Independent Voices Festival, revolves around the pivotal Triangle Waist Factory disaster and the wave of labor reform that it sparked. Yes, but this one-woman show staring Isa St. Clair is simply bursting at the seams with an over-abundance of academic research. Someone call a dramaturgical seamstress; this production needs to be cinched at the waist.

McGrath loads the program with true accounts of 17-year-old young women like “Suzie L. with lips red with the rich blood of health who came to New York to work at a factory. After only three months of employment, dark circles formed under her eyes; her form lost its springy life. In a word the poison had entered her system.” Lights up this production, and I was crushed to discover that I could only read about Suzie L. in the program.

On stage McGrath opens UP FROM THE ASHES in the here and now, 2014. Isa St. Clair appears as the picture of health, the rose-flush of youth on her porcelain cheeks. In one hand she holds a water bottle, from which she steals liberal sips, before proceeding to teach us as if we were an audience of ten year olds perched on a ONE UPON A NATION bench.

(Not to disparage the work of the lovely folk at Historical Philadelphia IncWith little tailoring, McGrath’s one-woman show has the potential to be ranked on the level of Spalding Gray’s SWIMMING TO CAMBODIAand Anna Deavere Smith’s FIRES IN THE MIRROR.)

Ms. St. Clair radiates the omniscient self-assurance of a liberal minded 21st century woman as she oscillates from character to character, garment worker to Mother Jones, dressed in black like a feminist drill sergeant commanding us to: “Strike!”

If Isa would just put her water bottle down, sit behind the industrial sewing machine, push the cast iron pedal with her foot for more than 9 seconds, the color would drain from her cheeks, the audience would see how 15-hours of back-breaking labor physically effects a beautiful young woman, and they would exit the theater yelling “Strike!” Ms. St. Clair would not have to say a word.

You may have missed your chance to catch this show at the Centre Theater, but do not fret. See Isa tonight at Off-Broad Street Theatre, 1636 Sansom St., Center City. January 9-19, 2014, ironagetheatre.org/.

Hey wait: Centre Theater 2014 Independent Voices Festival is still in full swing. Purchase your Independent Voices tickets here.  

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