At the turn of the twentieth century, $11USD had about the same buying power as $350USD today. Women in the United States did not have access to abortions or safe birth control of any kind (see also: What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Hannah Moscovitch). Eastern European migrants fled to North America in search of better, safer lives. Labour strikes were the subject of headlines ad nauseam: you might already know that if you’ve seen the 2011 musical Newsies (which, yes, I’ll reference again in this review).
The Great Divide by Alix Sobler, winner of the 2015 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition and currently in its premiere production at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in North York, escorts audiences into the not-so-distant past. Set in 1911 at the brink of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the play bears witness to these manifestations of lower-class discomfort. They’re symptoms of a rotting capitalism which has only become more potent today: the poverty line has inadequately adjusted to account for inflation, American abortions are in more jeopardy now than they have been in decades, Ukrainian refugees are arriving in planefuls with every passing month, and Amazon and Starbucks workers across North America are bravely leading the charge against this century’s most tyrannical employers.
The parallels are grim and unignorable — I as an American woman found much of this play difficult to stomach, particularly this week.
Our storyteller, the fictional Rosa (Tal Gottfried), has just arrived to Manhattan from Russia, a homeland briefly suggested in Avery Salzman’s production by droll accents and small costume pieces like hats and shawls — suppositions of Russian culture rooted in pastiche. Rosa’s thrilled by the prospect of America, the promised land, the golden gates of enterprise. She’s taken a job at a garment factory to save enough money to bring over family from the old country. She makes friends; she attends synagogue; she frequents the picture show. She’s a person.
But then conditions at the factory get a little worse, and a little worse again. Hours get longer. Doors get locked to prevent workers from stealing scraps of fabric. Pay stagnates at a ludicrous rate of $11 per week. Rosa and her friends strike. Some demands are met — some are not. No spoilers for a tragedy over a century old: the factory burns down, leaving corpses and public outcry (yet maddeningly little substantial change) in its wake.
The Great Divide is certainly timely, and the tragedy it details is one ripe for public discourse: low-wage factory tragedies continue to run rampant in the age of fast fashion. Sobler has a pressing story to tell, and she pursues the disaster’s political context sharply, if not always consistently. Commentary on collective Jewish trauma is haunting and raw, and Rosa as narrator is a well-written protagonist, funny and strong. One line in particular, about “classic five-foot Jewish women with dark eyes and wavy hair,” hit me right in the heart: I, of Lower East Side Jewish grandparentage, large nose, and dark features, felt seen.
But the play has a few fundamental hiccups, which Saltzman has navigated with admirable gusto but at times with an unsure hand. Sobler’s written herself into a corner: she’s created beautifully layered characters, only to revoke their identities in the eleventh hour, using direct address to tell us that, no, these people we’ve come to love weren’t real, they’re suppositions of the Jews who might have worked in the factory.
That would be an interesting stopping point, dramaturgically, but Sobler muddles forward, concluding on a more confusing note — no, wait, these were real people? Documentary theatre is a tricky undertaking — any playwright who attempts it is tasked not only with world-building but with curating details from real, lived history — and it seems here Sobler has become enamoured with her characters while also grappling with their inspirations’ anonymity. The conflation between real and suppositional characters might have been a conscious choice on Sobler’s part, but if so, it’s one that lost its way on the voyage from page to stage.
Commanding the vast, echoing Greenwin Theatre, Gottfried as Rosa is a formidable lead, with expressive eyes and a keen sense of dry expat humour — Gottfried winningly balances stoicism with subtle sarcasm. Lawrence Libor as Jacob, Rosa’s eventual beau, is another charming focal point of a fairly consistent ensemble (though his New York accent is another straight from the picket lines of Newsies). Sarah Gibbons as Manya has a lovely second-act monologue, one which fantasizes about a life beyond the walls of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory — the speech is perhaps the most poignant moment of the show, though Manya’s idealism about the future state of Israel is rather dramaturgically jarring from a 2022 vantage point.
Saltzman’s direction occasionally offers lovely moments of movement and even choral unity: group movements are well timed with Siobhan Sleath’s light cues, and a set of benches designed by Brian Dudkiewicz are ingeniously used to represent boats, factories, and picket lines. Some choices are less strong: a mimed violin sequence is a strange one indeed, and on opening night, before settling into the space, the ensemble crossed that delicate line between projecting and shouting.
Dudkiewicz’s set is perhaps The Great Divide’s star. Women’s eyes peer at us from gaps in weathered planks of wood, and the moment the fire breaks out is gorgeously realized for the stage without becoming overwrought. As much as I love a theatrical haze moment, one wasn’t needed here — Dudkiewicz’s set and Sleath’s sparse lights evoke the fire effectively.
The Great Divide has absolute promise, at minimum for its haunting resonance with today’s political context. But at approximately one hundred minutes, and despite its accolades, I still feel the text would benefit from further workshopping, and in the cavernous Greenwin Theatre, subtleties occasionally dissipate before reaching their intended audience. I look forward to following the play’s future productions, in more intimate venues and with more development to the script — the story’s important enough to be told again.
The Great Divide runs at Meridian Arts Centre in North York through May 15, 2022. Tickets are available here.