Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 1999

There seemed to be a great deal of excitment about “The Factory Girls” the season opener at the WTF’s Nikos Stage. I couldn’t figure out why. This wasn’t a play I had heard a great deal about, and the WTF wasn’t tooting its horn over the big names appearing in it. The next thing I heard the show was sold out, and I was even more puzzled. There was nothing to do but go and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

Alas, when the curtain fell last night I was just as puzzled as ever. This is a mediocre play filled with badly drawn characters that it hard to get interested in or excited about. The sets (Michael Brown) and lighting (Jeff Nellis) were nice. About the only interesting thing on the stage were the performances by the five strong actresses on the stage.

I can only suppose the attraction here is that the play is written by an Irishman (Frank McGuinness), directed by an Irishman (Nye Heron) and has an Irish setting. In is very “in” to be Irish right now. And there is no doubt that Ireland has given the world some of its great literature, drama, song, and dance. But an Irish accent is a difficult thing to maintain through two hours of dialogue. All the performers make a good attempt but none are fully convincing.

“The Factory Girls” concerns five women who work in a failing shirt factory in Donegal. All are working class Catholics, but they fit the ensemble play convention of representing all different aspects of that state. Una (Rebecca Schull) is very old and Rosemary (Gretchen Cleevely) is very young, they are both single and childless. Ellen (Celia Weston), the leader of the group, is middle-aged and widowed, and has lost all three of her children to tuberculosis. Vera (Kate Burton) is a middle-aged mother, married to a drunken lout. And Rebecca (Bernadette Quigley) is 30-something, unmarried and childless. During the course of the play it is rumored that she has had an affair with a manager at the factory.

The first act is devoted to introducing us to these women – their lives and their workplace – and the second act to their take-over of the main office in an effort to force management into granting better working conditions and wages. We never learn whether or not their effort was successful.

All five actresses bring a great deal of personality and presence to these poorly drawn characters trapped in a play with little plot or purpose. Burton, a WTF veteran, and Schull, best known for her role as Faye on the TV series ‘Wings”, are great fun to watch. Cleevely’s Rosemary enters as an angry young woman and quickly morphs into a new age Shirley Temple, annoyingly cute, complete with bunny slippers. Heron has her bounding, posing and raping herself all over the set. She is often the center of attention, but never the central character in the play.

Quigley is either saddled with a really badly written part, badly directed, or simply not up to the challenge. I enjoyed her performance, but as the play drew to its close I realized I was missing a lot of key information about the character of Rebecca and the dynamic between her and Ellen.

But weak writing, odd directing, Irish accent and all, there was no missing the powerful performance of Weston as Ellen. She provided the single continuous thread in this yarn.

“The Factory Girls” runs through June 17 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown. The show runs just over two hours with one intermission. Call the box office 413-597-3400 for tickets or the 24-hour information line at 413-597-3399.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

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