The Smokey Past


In 2001, the last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Rose Freedman, passed away, at the remarkable age of 107. On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, Freedman and her colleagues, mostly young immigrant women, smelled smoke. They ran to the doors only to find them locked, a grim measure by the factory owners to keep workers at their stations. Reasoning that the executives might have an escape route, Freedman made her way to the office’s 10th floor, then took a freight elevator to the roof, where she was rescued. All but one owner and office worker survived; 146 of Freedman’s seamstresses, a few as young as 11, were not so fortunate. Some died from burns, some from smoke inhalation, some from leaping from the eighth-floor windows, shredding firemen’s nets as they fell. “Girls in shirtwaists, which were aflame, went flying out of the building . . . you saw these young women literally ablaze,” Freedman remembered.

Playwright Sylvia Regan’s mother and aunts worked at the factory, though their observance of the Jewish sabbath kept them at home on the day of the fire. A few days later, a three-year-old Regan visited the Greenwich Village site with her mother. Regan recalled “holding onto the cold metal handle of a baby carriage as [my mother] told a friend about hearing the screams of the girls who had been trapped inside that building, and about the bodies that fell to the sidewalk.”

Regan wrote that she never forgot that moment, and her 1940 play Morning Star, now revived by the Peccadillo Theater Company, certainly supports that claim. The piece concerns three generations of an immigrant Russian-Jewish family, led by the tough but tender matriarch Becky Felderman. During the two decades that the play covers, Becky and her four children suffer many of the vicissitudes—tragic and trivial—of the early 20th century. The Triangle fire features prominently. World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the decline of Tin Pan Alley also make appearances.

When the play debuted on Broadway, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson described it as “a homely drama about Americanism and family life” and a piece of “sentimentalized generality.” (Atkinson also added in a bit of praise for Yiddish- theater “darling” Molly Picon in her first English-speaking role; Sidney Lumet, in his stage debut as a bar mitzvah boy, went unmentioned.) The term “homely” has fallen from favor, but Atkinson’s observations stand. Though she aims for naturalism, Regan creates entertaining characters rather than bona fide people. Only onstage could you find a mother as plucky as Becky outfitted with daughters as good as Esther, as bad as Sadie, or as irrepressible as Fanny. This flaw likely explains why the play so often receives unfavorable comparison to Awake and Sing!, scripted by Regan’s childhood friend Clifford Odets. But surely the stage has space for more than one Jewish family play of the period. And if Morning Star is indeed structurally and linguistically inferior to Odets’s play, it’s gentler and funnier as well.

Dan Wackerman, the director of this revival, hasn’t quite decided if he prefers the play’s comedic or maudlin streaks. This results in the sort of awkward tonal variation that Jean Randich, in a production at the Tenement Museum eight years ago, neatly avoided. But he’s assembled a pleasant cast to tread set designer Joseph Spirito’s cheerfully cluttered boards. Standouts include newcomer Darcy Yellin as Fanny, Steve Sterner as the amorous tenant Aaron, and Susan Greenhill as Becky-though it’s puzzling why Wackerman encouraged hair and make-up that render Greenhill at least 20 years older than her character. Wackerman hits the jokes hard, but he also emphasizes the play’s sentimentality, sending audience members, and even the occasional critic, scrabbling in their bags for tissues.

In his review, Atkinson dubbed Morning Star “a popular play on a worthy theme.” Atkinson was referring to the struggles of the Felderman family to survive and assimilate, but the play’s discussion of the Triangle fire and the desperate environments of low-income workers may now mark the play’s chief interest—Regan’s rosy view of citizenship and patriotism seem dated, but her exposé of unsafe working conditions unfortunately does not. With an estimated 2,500 illegal sweatshops operating in New York City—many flouting federal guidelines regarding safety, hours, and wages—it remains alarmingly current. According to a recent New York Times editorial, “The modern sweatshops are filled with new immigrants, some of them children, working for sub-minimum wages under conditions that invite another catastrophe.” These “huddled masses”and the play’s tragedies—provide a bleak contrast to Becky’s hopeful assertion that “in America everybody is free.”