nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 24, 2005
Funny how the most successful businessmen of the the late 19th century—people like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and Jay Gould—are still well-known a hundred years later, while their contemporaries who devoted themselves to doing good for humankind—people like Jane Addams and Lillian Wald—are merely names to us today, if even that. Anthony P. Pennino's fascinating new play Children's Crusader is trying to rectify this circumstance, putting the very significant life of Florence Kelley on stage at the Metropolitan Playhouse. Who is Florence Kelley?, you ask. See Children's Crusader and be astounded.
Here, very quickly, is some of what this remarkable woman did during her life (1859-1932). She was the daughter of a U.S. Congressman and met Abraham Lincoln and the woman's rights champion Lucretia Mott while still a child. She went to Cornell University and then abroad where she became a disciple of Socialism. In her 30s, she moved to Chicago, where she was appointed Inspector of Factories by the Progressive Governor of Illinois, John Altgeld. She went to law school and was admitted to the Illinois Bar. At about the time she was 40, she moved to New York City, where she became an advisor to then-Governor Theodore Roosevelt; and when TR became President she continued to work with him, shaping numerous pieces of legislation regulating labor conditions for women and children. Eventually, some of the laws she authored had their constitutionality challenged in the Supreme Court, and with Louis Brandeis (later a Justice of that Court) as her attorney, their legality was upheld. Kelley also worked with Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago and with Lillian Wald at Henry Street Settlement in New York City's Lower East Side.
That, in a nutshell, is what's covered in Children's Crusader. (Pennino assures me—and a quick gander at some articles on the Internet confirms—that there's enough additional material for at least one more play.)
Social consciousness is always taken for granted, I think, and never really in fashion: it's good to be reminded of a woman—and a whole circle of associates, including the aforementioned Addams and Wald along with writer Henry Lloyd and others—who dedicated her life to making the world a better place, for the benefit of those less fortunate. The play shows us a few archetypal cases—a teenager named Connor working in a coal mine; another youngster named Lech, a Polish immigrant, forced to work in a factory rather than go to school; an Irish seamstress running a factory in her home, afraid to challenge the powerful businessmen who buy her wares—to help us understand what fueled Kelley's outrage at the System. The windmills that she tilts at are apathy, self-interest, greed, and simple economics; they're all still with us today, which means that her work is more, not less, important to take note of.
Pennino balances the history with scenes depicting Kelley's troublous family life—she was, it seems, a great mother to all children save her own, and her stormy love/hate relationship with her son Nicholas drives much of the domestic part of the drama here. Pennino peppers his script with visits from a variety of famous figures from Kelley's lifetime, including the colorful Teddy Roosevelt, whose children Ethel and Kermit also make brief appearances (and Kermit's pet boa constrictor is alluded to), and, in a dream sequence, Calamity Jane.
Pennino is even more successful in conjuring the Gilded Age, for better or worse, in scenes featuring numerous anonymous characters, from workers and immigrants to newsboys and hawkers at a World's Fair. (One of these sequences, evoking Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit in the space of a couple of minutes, feels too reminiscent of Ragtime, however.)
The play is a brand new one and is probably a little different today than it was when I saw it; the script and the production will undoubtedly continue to sharpen as the run proceeds. Alex Roe's staging is fine, keeping things moving nearly nonstop and evoking myriad locations with economy and imagination on Ryan Scott's utilitarian unit set. Melanie Rey plays Kelley and makes her a likable, interesting heroine; it's a marathon role that keeps her on stage for almost the entire 2-1/2 hours of the show. An ensemble of eight energetic performers plays everyone else, seemingly a hundred other characters, from presidents and governors to hungry children working in factories. Sidney Fortner is the standout of the group, offering genuinely complex and admirable portraits of Calamity Jane and Lillian Wald.
The breadth of Kelley's achievements and Pennino's ambition means that Children's Crusader is fairly dense with incident: most of the episodes recounted here really just scratch the surface. The play will have done its job, though, if it whets the viewer's appetite to learn more about this lady and the history she helped shape.