Set against the ominous horrors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, David Brendan Hopes’ new play, Washington Place tells a story of hope and inspiration about the workers within that doomed building. The Magnetic Theatre has something special on its hands in this great play by a local author.
At the start, it seems like just another day at the factory. Allen T. Law’s Avi arrives and tidies up the work space, wide-eyed and hopeful for the long life that is surely ahead of him. Law is perfect as the bright young man with a lust for life.
Arriving early to work are two Jewish women, the reserved Gussie and the outspoken Yetta. They prepare for a 12-hour shift behind locked doors and a constant contempt and suspicion that falls upon them. Valerie Miess is Gussie, who has accepted her lot in life. Samantha Stewart’s Yetta is fiery and rebellious, spending her free time attending socialist meetings. The two actresses hold the audience transfixed for the first 20 minutes with an elegant discussion of their different perspectives while they’re seated at their work stations. It is mesmerizing in its intimacy and honesty.
Another Jewish woman, Essie, arrives, as do Italian immigrants Lucia and Rosaria. Devyn Ray’s Essie is somewhere between the more pronounced opposites of Gussie and Yetta. Emmalie Handley’s Lucia has a secret that must be kept hidden from her employers, and her young sister Rosaria, played sweetly by Sophie Yates, pretends to not speak English in her delicate courtship with Avi.
Terry Darakjy plays Providenza Panno, who oversees the work of the young women. She herself started where they are, but rose to middle management, and now watches them with an eye of suspicion. Darakjy shines in a role that would otherwise be unsympathetic, yet holds her own in a powerful confrontation with Yetta.
The play is a day in the life of women who are not allowed to dream of more, or aspire to better lives. Some accept it, some protest it. There is no sense of their impending doom, which makes what is to come all the more unsettling. We get to know, and develop an affection for, these women and their plight under of the deft direction of Steve Samuels. He guides the audience along a path that has us hoping that somehow today is not the day of the fire that will take all the lives we have become so invested in.
The show is powerful. It reminds us of the sacrifices of those who died over a century ago. It is also a cautionary tale to warn us that such struggles are still playing out in our world today. This is what theater can and should be.