Love. Birth. Death. Steel. And there you have the Unseam'd Shakespeare Co.'s revival of Andy Wolk's 1979 adaptation of Out of This Furnace. The semi-autobiographical novel by Thomas Bell, published in 1941, tells the story of three generations of a hard-working Slovak-American family in Braddock's industrial heyday. It's a massive but enthralling tale, tightly directed by Marci Woodruff in the intimate space of the Open Stage Theater.
Furnace spans more than a half century: from 1881, when the family patriarch steps off the boat onto Ellis Island, to 1937, when his grandson is fighting for a labor union to improve conditions at the mill, where the men of his family worked and -- sometimes -- died. But this isn't a straight-ahead narrative. Time moves back and forth in memories, with events in the past foreshadowing events to come.
The third-generation son, Dobie (an earnest and likable Marc Epstein), is part narrator, part Greek chorus. Central, though, is the love story of the second generation, Dobie's parents, from tentative courtship through family struggles to tragic demise. That story rises above the ordinary, with Paul Ford and Karen Baum realizing Mike and Mary's passions, frustrations and little triumphs, but mostly their zest for life.
The cast is large and solid, with particularly notable performances in the first-generation ranks: Christopher Josephs as the rapscallion patriarch, Debra Gordon as the shrewd and sometimes shrewish neighbor (extra points for filling in for another actor at the last minute, not that it's obvious), and Laura Smiley as the steerage femme fatale. Almost another character is the Edgar Thomson Works itself, depicted on a backdrop painted in shades of soot and looming over the action in the gritty set designed by production manager Gordon Phetteplace. Ethnic music from Jerry Jumba and Ed Tarzia add to the atmosphere.
Part of Pittsburgh's 250th birthday celebration, the production benefits from the extensive contributions and researches of many local civic and historic organizations and individuals. And anyone who doesn't realize why labor unions are a good idea will get a thorough explanation. Though of particular interest to native Pittsburghers, especially those of Eastern European heritage (daps for detailing the bigotry that community faced), Furnace has a broad appeal for its richly detailed characters striving for dignity -- and pursuing happiness -- in a harsh and hard world.