Shirtwaist is a brilliant piece of grim theatre. It’s no easy feat to pull off a one-woman play based on a story as emotionally laden as that of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, but here the tragedy is communicated with acute sensitivity. If the play itself is too upsetting to be called a pleasure to watch, there is certainly something akin to pleasure to be found in watching it done so well.
Jane Bowie, as the one woman, has complete command of the stage. The first half hour - in which she details her parents’ move from Scotland to America, their struggle and their new life there - is extremely poignant. The narration demands great shifts in emotion; overwhelmed by the memory of the song her mother used to sing, her wistfulness - ‘I didn’t know how I remembered that…’ - switches suddenly to anger at the fear that her pain is being exploited. The metamorphosis is totally convincing.
The transitions between the telling and acting of the story are also seamless. As she recounts the moment of disaster, she vividly transports us to the scene at Triangle Shirtwaist itself. She chokes on the smoke, shouts in panic, weeps with fear. It was neither the first nor the last time I felt like weeping with her.
Watching her story and her increasing vulnerability, I felt like I had become one of the journalists myself, feeling almost guilty that she should be laying herself so emotionally bare before me. Her enraged question, ‘What do you mean, ‘What happened in March 1911?’’ encapsulates the double layer of exploitation she suffers. First capitalised upon by the factory owners who paid overtime in apple pie rather than money, she now relives the experiences at the demand of two journalists looking for a scoop. It’s powerful stuff.
The script isn’t Shirtwaist’s only strength either. Lighting is used expertly to compliment changes in her mood. Music, too, is very effective: often abruptly coming to an end like the jolt of waking up from a dream. Appropriate, for a tale that documents so bitterly the collapse of one family’s American Dream.
Bowie was clearly exhausted by the end, thanking us breathlessly for her well deserved applause. Shirtwaist is a story of injustice; Bowie does it complete justice.