A Rent In The Garment

A Rent In The Garment

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Some scars are more visible than others. In Jane Prendergast’s “Ashes,” set in the period following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a teenage Jewish girl is caught between her mother, who disapproves of her having a baby, and her husband, a survivor of the fire who wants to start a new life. The one-act drama runs as part of Metropolitan Playhouse’s new batch of “East Side Stories,” a festival of one-act plays and monologues inspired by life on the Lower East Side.

Directed by Jason Jacobs, “Ashes” takes place as the mother, Irma (Elisa London), and her 19-year-old daughter, Ethel (Lauren T. Mack), are setting out special dishes for the seder in their apartment on Elizabeth Street. Ethel’s husband, Nathan (Ryan Michael Hartman), a garment cutter whose face was badly burned in the fire, has been unemployed since he testified against the factory owners, who were — to the horror of many — ultimately not just acquitted, but paid insurance money for each of the victims.

Nathan, who has just taken an interim job as a trash collector, itches to get out from under his mother-in-law’s thumb; he compares the couple’s moving out to the Israelites’ fleeing bondage in Egypt.

Prendergast, who grew up in Brooklyn, studied chemistry in the Brown Building at NYU, which is the same building where the infamous fire took place. After earning a master’s degree in music from Teacher’s College, Prendergast started writing plays. One of her previous works is “Echoes: Fall of 1938,” which focuses on a radical Jewish family in Brooklyn whose son was crippled while serving in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

For “Ashes,” Prendergast read through hundreds of pages of the Shirtwaist Factory trial transcript, which is available online. She was shocked by the lawyers’ success in exculpating their clients by casting doubt on the survivors’ story that the fire escape doors were locked.

The play, she noted, is set “when the ashes have gone cold, and people are trying to sort out the horrendous injustice of what happened.” The connection with Passover, she said, is that the holiday “was the beginning of the Jews’ march out of slavery” and the fire was a “watershed in the struggle for unions and worker safety.”

But, she lamented, the rest of the world has, a century later, still not learned from the tragedy. “I’m probably wearing clothes right now that were made [unethically] in Third World countries,” she said. “These tragedies are still happening today.”

“Ashes” runs at Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. Fourth St. Performances are Friday, April 25 at 7 p.m., Sunday April 27 at 1 p.m., Wednesday, April 30 at 7 p.m., Saturday, May 3 at 1 p.m., and Sunday, May 4 at 4 p.m. For tickets, $15-$20, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.metropolitanplayhouse.org.

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