by Lynn on May 6, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, Greenwin Theatre, Meridian Arts Centre, 5040 Yonge St. Toronto, Ont.  until. May 15, 2022.

Written by Alix Sobler

Directed by Avery Saltzman

Set designed by Brian Dudkiewicz

Sound designed by Lyon Smith

Costumes designed by Alex Amini

Lighting Designed by Siobhán Sleath

Cast: Mairi Babb

Darrin Baker

Sarah Gibbons

Tal Gottfried

Lawrence Libor

A sobering, earnest look at the life of immigrant Jews in New York City in 1911 as they toiled in a terrible sweatshop with horrible results.

The Story. Rosa and her friends have gathered to tell a story as a play. It is less about entertainment and more about bearing witness. They have done this before with variations but this time seems particularly important.

Rosa describes life in Russia for Jews at the beginning of the 20th century: pogroms, racism; freezing weather, hunger, poverty, little opportunity for a better life there. She dreams of going to American where life is better. Women can work, earn a living, be educated and make a better life. Her brother Avram choses to stay in Russia believing he can make a difference there. Rosa and her sister Saidie and Saidie’s husband go by ship to New York. It’s a rough journey but hope for a better life is high.

Rosa gets a job in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company as a seamstress. The work is arduous, the hours are long, the pay is minimal and the working conditions are horrible. She makes friends and is intrigued with a firebrand named Clara who urges the works to form a union for better conditions and pay. Rosa attracts the attention of Jacob, a cutter at the factory who professes his love. Rosa is hesitant.

With the telling of the story/play we learn that it ended horribly—this is not a spoiler because it’s noted throughout the telling.

The Production and comment. Brian Dudkiewicz’s set is evocative of the dingy factory. The back wall is black as if sooty, as in the remnants of a fire. Benches are used to suggest a change of location. Suitcases of the various immigrants are placed around the set from which characters will get props. Very efficient. Alex Amini’s costumes suggest the poor immigrant life: well-worn clothes.  Lyon Smith’s sound scape is subtle and very effective as we hear the distant rumble of the fire, that would become full of screams as people were trapped in their sewing room because the door was locked to prevent theft, and the elevator didn’t work.  Because of that fire, 146 workers died, most of them young women. Avery Saltzman’s staging is efficient and not flashy.

There is a compelling earnestness in the telling of the story because as Rosa (Tal Gottfried) says they have to make sure that they mattered, because without the fire she says that nobody would have cared about them. Rosa had to be convinced by the other characters that conditions improved after that. In fact the fire was considered the worst in the city until that ‘milestone’ was surpassed elsewhere in the world with worse situations: Bangladesh, China etc.  

I did wonder for whom were they ‘performing’ the play and when Rosa would come forward, I realized it was for the modern audience. The character of Rosa is hard-nosed, full of conviction when she wants to do something, single-minded and unbending when Jacob (a caring Lawrence Libor) professes his love for her. She just can’t commit. When she was faced with a decision in that terrible fire she gives a moving speech of what she wants from life, but again, she is faced with an important decision and can’t make it. I also thought it interesting that Rosa never actually ‘asked’ the modern audience to note their sacrifice she just assumed they wouldn’t care. I think the decision by playwright Alix Sobler to make Rosa unbending weakened her a touch.

Because the material is so earnest, I found that often the cast ‘declared’ their positions rather than presented them, in an effort to heighten the importance of what they were saying. We get it. Please bring the level of expression down a few notches.

The Great Divide recounts a heartbreaking, unsettling story of immigrant life for Jewish immigrants in American with commitment. The guts and sacrifice it took those people to come to a new country is there in the play. No matter where they landed we are the beneficiaries of that conviction.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre presents:

Plays until: May 15, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.