By Joseph Hurley
THE FACTORY GIRLS, by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Malcolm Adams. Starring Gerry Glennon, Victoria McCormack, Diane Flynn, Bronagh Harmon and Tony Caffrey. Produced by the Macalla Theatre Company. At the Woodlawn Heights Presbyterian Church, 240th Street and Martha Avenue, Woodlawn, the Bronx. Through May 18.
Playwright Frank McGuinness’s first produced play, “The Factory Girls,” staged by the Abbey Theatre in 1980, and then at London’s Royal Court, has never had a New York production – until now. It is finally on view in a limited run, but the venue isn’t Broadway or even off-Broadway, but the basement of a Presbyterian church in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.
The gifted playwright, adaptor and translator, celebrated on Broadway for “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” and for his dazzling adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” limited himself in his first play to County Donegal, where he was born in the town of Buncrana.
“The Factory Girls” takes place in a modest Donegal shirt factory, not far from the Leitrim border, at a time when the operation has undergone a change of ownership, rendering the organization’s all-female labor force extremely edgy about their collective future.
Having been informed that more work, a greater degree of productivity, will be required of them under the new management, the five women who staff the workroom settle upon a work action to make their position clear to their employers.
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The bitterly unhappy Ellen, described in the play’s printed text as being ” in her 50s,” but played here by the much younger Gerry Glennon, is something of a natural leader and, as such, is the prime mover and shaker in the demonstration.
Rebecca is in her late 20s, docile and uncomplaining to the point of near paralysis until she erupts in the play’s final moments.
Rosemary is just 16, and, as befits her age, considers her involvement at the workroom just a transitory phase of her life, an inherently unpleasant period that will eventually be finished and forgotten. Vera, in her early 30s, is a mother of small children who, when the workers take over the management offices in the play’s second half, becomes extremely agitated, lest her husband prove unable to look after the kids adequately.
Una, dowdy and grandmotherly, is the oldest of the “girls.” McGuinness has one of his heroines refer to the fact that they prefer to be called “girls” as opposed to “women,” since, as one of his characters puts it, “factory girls never grow old.”
The play’s two male characters, only briefly and insignificantly present on stage, are Bonner, apparently a kind of foreman, and the somewhat younger Rohan, a representative of management, plainly disliked by the factory girls despite the fact that, as a Catholic, they had at one point expected him to be an improvement over his predecessor, which proved not to be the case.
McGuinness’s play breaks rather neatly into two parts, with each half being made up of four scenes of roughly equal length. The first act takes place in the workroom, while the women squabble, tell jokes, sing songs, gossip and reveal their worries. Act Two, with the addition of a desk, a filing cabinet and a couple of chairs, brings onstage the management office that has been occupied by the workers, much in the manner of students taking over the offices of the president of a small Midwestern college in the 1960s.
Inexperienced playwright that he was when he wrote “The Factory Girls,” McGuinness seems not to have known how to punctuate his materials, with the result that both acts, and most of the scenes within them, end weakly, without having made much of a statement. This comment is perhaps unfair in terms of the play’s conclusion, in which, in the written text, a kind of tension occurs as Rebecca challenges the doctrinaire Ellen.
Unfortunately, in the Macalla Theatre Company’s production, directed by Malcolm Adams, Victoria McCormack’s Rebecca is so tepidly played, and so quietly spoken, that her “outburst” seems not much more disturbing that a ripple on a pond.
Macalla, an energetic and enthusiastic amateur theater group devoted to bringing mainly Irish theater to the Bronx, outdid itself last season with a really outstanding production of Belfast playwright Martin Lynch’s “Rinty,” directed by former Macalla chief Donald Creedon.
This time, the group hasn’t been quite so fortunate. McGuinness’s early play is a decidedly faulty work, and Adams’s staging, in the main, seems fairly flat, failing to shape and mold the playwright’s relatively few really salient points about women in the workplace and the struggles that complicate the lives of Catholic and Protestants alike in Northern Ireland and the border counties.
The most outstanding, and perhaps initially most startling, aspect of Adams’s staging appears to be the casting of Macalla regular Tony Caffrey in the role of Una. A male actor, Caffrey was memorably effective as the father of the eponymous hero in “Rinty,” and here is so credible and so excellent as the kindly and somewhat fussy Una, the kind of woman who remembers to bring along an electric space heater when she’s headed for a sit-in, that after the first shock wave passes, it really doesn’t matter very much that there’s a bald, male head underneath the character’s rather flossy wigs.
Tom Brangan and Conor McManus are serviceable as, respectively, Rohan and Bonner, but McGuinness’s play belongs to its female characters. Diane Flynn’s anxious Vera and Bronagh Harmon’s arrogantly trendy Rosemary are fairly well on the mark, although Glennon’s Ellen seems a good deal more strident than necessary under the circumstances.
But McGuinness’s arguments tend to fly out the windows and escape under the doorsills of Jimmy Maloney’s set, as the audience watches transfixed as Caffrey’s Una fixes her hair, spreads jam on her toast, or, in fact, does anything at all.