Stage Preview: 'Out of This Furnace' stokes region's industrial history
Mike Dobrejcak, played by Paul Ford, and Mary Dobrejcak, played by Karen Baum, in the first act of "Out of This Furnace" at the Open Stage Theatre. "Out of this Furnace," produced by Unseam'd Shakespeare, is a dramatization of Thomas Bell's novel about immigrant labor in America.
Dobie Dobrejcak, played by Marc Epstein, narrates "Out of This Furnace."
Debra Gordon, left, plays Dorta Dubik, and Paul Ford is Mike Dobrejcak in the Unseam'd Shakespeare production of "Out of This Furnace," opening tomorrow at Open Stage Theatre.
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Immigrants who labored for low wages inside Pittsburgh's hot, dangerous steel mills tasted hardship daily while their might and sweat powered America's Industrial Revolution.
In his classic 1941 novel "Out of This Furnace," Thomas Bell drew on the experiences of his own immigrant family to unfold this tale of three generations of Slovaks who struggled to make a better life for themselves in Braddock, home of the vast, belching Edgar Thomson Works.
The Kracha family's story is dramatized in a revival of "Out of This Furnace," a play that opens tomorrow and runs through June 28 at Open Stage Theatre in the Strip District. It focuses on Djuro Kracha and his daughter, Mary, who weds Mike, a millworker. The couple's son, Dobie, helps organize a union.
Veteran theatergoers may recall the original production, developed and staged from 1976-79 by a local troupe called The Iron Clad Agreement, which performed on university stages as well as in union halls, churches and school classrooms.
"On opening night, people lined the sidewalks -- not to see us so much as to see themselves as they were 'Out of This Furnace,' " recalled Julia Swoyer Royall, co-founder of the troupe in 1976 with Wilson Hutton. The play opened in a Braddock union hall, the very union that one of the main characters fights to establish.
- Where: Unseam'd Shakespeare at Open Stage Theatre, Strip District.
- When: Tomorrow through June 28; 8 p.m. on Wednesdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. On June 28, there will be a 4 p.m. matinee. Post-show discussions are held after Wednesday performances.
- Tickets: $15-$20; 412-394-3353.
The Iron Clad Agreement produced more than 30 original works that focused on the history of industry and technology from a variety of perspectives. The troupe dramatized the lives of Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
This new production of "Out of This Furnace," by the Unseam'd Shakespeare Company, features a multilevel set with a backdrop that reproduces a historic photo of the Edgar Thomson Works, a soundscape complete with noisy neighbors, a moving train and work whistles. Directed by Marci Woodruff, it's her sixth production with Unseam'd.
"You're living on top of your neighbors, and the mill is living on top of you. The mill is the unspoken character. It has to loom over the set, and it has to be relentless in terms of sound," Woodruff said.
A native of Cadiz, Ky., the personable director moved to Pittsburgh in 1979 to teach at the University of Pittsburgh's theater department. She left in 1983 to pursue a career in acting and directing but returned in 1998 and noticed local theater companies were staging classical works or shows that virtually guaranteed box-office revenue.
Young people, she observed, were unaware of local history and their families' connections to the Industrial Revolution. In this year that marks Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary, Woodruff thought a revival of "Out of This Furnace" was essential because the story speaks to the soul of this community.
The Iron Clad Agreement's co-founders took care in researching the history they dramatized, and that tradition has carried over to this production.
In April, Paul Laxton, a scholar from Liverpool, England, and an authority on "Out of This Furnace," led the actors and production designers on a walking tour of Braddock with the book in his hand.
"We stood in front of Mike and Mary's house and Mike's grave [actually the grave of Bell's father]," Woodruff said, adding that Laxton has been "the angel on my shoulder through all of this. He believes in teaching history through geography." He will be in the audience on opening night.
Americans who confront an increasingly competitive workplace as well as higher fuel and food prices will have no difficulty relating to the show's central themes.
"Everyone's stretched thinner and thinner. Working people and certain ethnic groups are getting dumped on," said Christopher Josephs, an actor who portrays the family's paterfamilias, Djuro Kracha, and who played Mike in the original production.
"The wives worked just as hard or harder than the men," said Josephs, noting that if a man died in an industrial accident, the strain onhis widow was enormous. "When the breadwinner goes, it's starvation time. They took in more boarders when their husbands died. Widows were allowed to beg on the grounds of the factory."
Immigrant women juggled work and family responsibilities, too.
"The women were the spit that held this culture together," Woodruff said.
Central and Eastern European immigrants who found jobs at the Edgar Thomson Works during the 1880s were derided as "hunkies." While the Irish and Scots rose through the ranks, Josephs said, "They just did not promote the hunkies."
But by the 1930s, Slovak workers' grandchildren arrived on factory floors and organized unions to seek higher pay, pensions, death benefits for widows whose husbands died in industrial accidents and safer mills.
Josephs, now of Forest Hills, had his own mill experience in the summer of 1968, when he earned $120 in take-home pay each week from his job in a rolling mill at U.S. Steel's Homestead Works.
While one man operated a crane and picked up steel plates that were 5 feet wide and 8 feet long and had razor-sharp edges, Josephs secured chains around a stack of them so the plates could be moved safely.
Then one day, "I felt this burning sensation in my right leg. They took me to the infirmary, sewed me up and one week later, they laid me off. You weren't supposed to get hurt."
Not surprisingly, Woodruff and her cast also encountered nostalgia for the bustle and boom that steel brought to Braddock. Following an open rehearsal at Braddock's Carnegie Library on May 31, Woodruff and her cast members adjourned to the Elks Club for a drink and wound up talking with five club members, all of whom were retired steelworkers.
"Oh, honey," one of the men told Woodruff, "you should have seen Braddock 40 years ago. It would take you 30 minutes to drive three blocks. It was the best city in the United States."
First Published June 11, 2008 12:00 am