Wings of Fire
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 17, 2010
Taking its inspiration from a piece of eyewitness testimony about the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire, Hayley Green's play Wings of Fire tries to investigate the individual human stories behind a puzzling moment contained within a historical tragedy. Why did a man help four women to jump out of a ninth-story window to almost certain death, handing them over the sill like he was helping them into a carriage? Why did he kiss the fourth passionately, then jump immediately following her?
The basic outlines of the fire are simple, and well-known: in the Asch Building in lower Manhattan, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on one of the three floors occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a clothing manufacturer that primarily employed young immigrant women, mostly Jewish and Italian. One of the stairways was blocked by the fire, and the other had been locked to force all employees to exit by the same route, to discourage theft. After the fire escape collapsed under the weight of escaping workers, there was no viable means of exit; 146 people died.
Green begins with the fire, and then travels back a year, to 1910, to introduce one newly arriving immigrant at the moment she lands in New York, right before she joins her cousin at the Triangle Factory. We ultimately meet a group of six young women seamstresses, four of whom will become the characters in the tableau that inspired the piece—Rose, the newest arrival; Becky, her cousin; aspiring ballet dancer Ida; Tessie, who is even more desperately poor than the rest of them and is forced into prostitution; Rachel, secretly engaged to one of the male factory workers, Sam; and Violet, not-so-secretly in love with Sam's brother, Joe. Rose and Becky live with Becky's parents; the rest seem to live in lodgings (or, in Tessie's case, to have been evicted from lodgings and literally live on the street). The girls form a happy social unit, gossiping, going out together to dance halls, sharing their hopes and dreams—Becky's ambition to be a writer and Ida's dreams of the ballet; Violet and Rachel's love affairs, and Rose's growing friendship—then romance—with the newsboy Benny.
The problem is that both the characters' emotional lives and the setting feel too generic, not given either enough specific detail or enough texture to really allow us to engage with them. I constantly found myself dragged out of the story by not being able to trust the way the play was grounded in its period or the details of the characters. Green uses Benny's profession as a newsboy to work in relevant pieces of big-picture historical data (sometimes adroitly and sometimes with a surfeit of statistics), but doesn't fill in the outlines with the richness that makes you feel the emotional truth of these women's lives.
For example, you'd never know from the play that the majority of the factory's workers were either Jewish or Italian; instead, we see them all celebrating Christmas together, sitting around a piano singing Christmas carols. They all talk of arriving in America, but we don't have a strong sense of where any of them came from, of what cultures they were raised in. Turns of phrase that sound distinctly modern crop up from time to time: "Go for it" or "Step out of your comfort zone." Even a number of the little details—the women smoking cigarettes out on the street, or the girls being quoted a weekly rather than a piecework wage—struck my ear as questionable, pulling me out of emotional engagement with the story.
On an emotional level, the three romances—Benny and Rose, Sam and Rachel, Joe and Violet—feel a little too similar, and for all of these characters, their romantic feelings appear to be the primary components of their interior lives. And a subplot involving Tessie's co-optation into prostitution feels both a little cursorily sketched-in, and resolved too patly.
There is, however, a genuine poignancy in seeing these young men and women move toward what we know to be their certain doom. And this is largely due to the production's strengths—the sweetness and energy of the troupe of actors, and a simple, stripped down staging (also by Green), with virtually no set and a visual elegance supplied by the costumes, all black, white, and gray with touches of red strewn throughout. The actors playing the various romantic couples (Melissa McKamie and Sky Bennett as Rose and Benny; Amanda Wertz and Austin Riley Green as Violet and Joe; and Gina-Marie Vincent and Brent Gobel as Rachel and Sam) are particularly enjoyable to watch, glowing with young love.
Green has latched onto a subject and a story with potential, but I wish she'd dug deeper into both her subject material and her characters' emotional lives.