Justice Theater Project
Through Feb. 26
Let’s go on the record here: The record, itself, isn’t always that reliable.
The title character in the recent production of Donald makes the point while dressing down a researcher with the impertinence to question him on his record as Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld’s character acidly retorts, “The record is unlikely to be kept by the likes of you.” For that matter, the real former cabinet official asserts a similar view in a video on his personal online archive (“The Rumsfeld Papers,” at rumsfeld.com): “These documents are…my slice of our country’s history. It will be from the slices and perspectives of those who saw these events firsthand that the final history of our time will be written.”
Note the word “final.” And consider the agenda of someone who ultimately wants thousands of documents supporting his decisions in office distributed worldwide for free, and to “readers of all generations.”
It’s the unstated corollary to that monumental dodge, “History will judge me.” In it, you leave history with a mountain of wordsconvenient, searchable and, above all, multi-platformand make your version of events omnipresent. With that in place, you might not even need to bury the parts you don’t like; scalability issues and search engines may do the job for you. This is why researchers and artists have certain responsibilities when they find evidence that history’s been gamedor, more ominously, erased. The first obligation involves uncovering the truth. The second is to tell the tale, clearly and coherently, in the face of the victor’s remix.
Unfortunately, the current production by Justice Theater Project, Molly Daughter, largely squanders the opportunity to do both when it comes to the troubled history of Irish mine workers in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania in the late 1800s.
Deborah Randall’s problematic script concerns the Wiggans Patch Massacre, an obscure anti-union vigilante action from December 1875. It looks at the inequities in working conditions and pay that made millionaires of mine and railroad magnates Asa Packer and Franklin B. Gowen, while impoverishing and crippling a labor force whose members were deemed largely expendable.
But Molly Daughter is also about the hanging of 20 Irish laborers accused of belonging to a secret pro-labor society, the Molly Maguires, after a series of show trials between 1877 and 1879. It then attempts to deal with the disenfranchised women who carried on after the deaths of their husbands, as well as addressing speculation on the group’s history, and telling the story of a contemporary woman trying to reconnect with her Irish past.
Obviously, any one of these themes could easily occupy a full evening’s work. Randall, however, attempts to address all of these issues in the course of a one-hour, one-act play. The results are, predictably, unfortunate.
As various narrative threads become hopelessly tangled and then cut before making adequate sense, director Carnessa Ottelin’s uneven staging veers from pensive to preachy to melodramatic. When central character Maeve (Deb Royals, also the company’s artistic director) isn’t addressing an awful lot of her lines to a hollow tree trunk at the grave of her ancestor, Nanny (Renee Wimberley), she’s a singer at a pub, unbelievably lecturing a group of barflies on a local atrocity for her opening set. So much for happy hour.
Scenes in which Wimberley and Alison Lawrence reenact historical sequences fare much better until the one chair on stage starts flying. But when dramatic momentum is seemingly achieved, composer Alan Scott’s thoroughly workmanlike ’60s folk-song settings for Randall’s equally workmanlike lyrics settle things down again, as cryptic phrases from the Angelic Salutation are projected, with something less than subtlety, on a screen behind the stage.
The historical record was already a disservice to the people who struggled in these early labor battles against treacherous working conditions, inadequate wages and political powerlessness. Regrettably, this far too muddy blur of events, conspiracies and inadequately explored outcomes doesn’t clarify the record.