In the mid 1970s, Thomas Bell's reissued 1941 novel Out of This Furnace became a best-seller, especially in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Steel mills, immigration and trade unionism are all major themes. Screenwriter Andy Wolk tried to make a play out it, and you can see the result in what Unseam'd Shakespeare Company says concerns "three generations' struggle to build a life in the shadow of Carnegie's first mill" and "the rise of unions in Braddock, Pa."
The play depicts those families. But labor issues and immigration remain in the shadows. Onstage, there's a stunning photograph of Mon Valley mills at the height of their power; steam issues from theater walls; and thundering sound effects crash. But that's all surface. Inside -- despite sturdy, believable performances -- the play has no power.
Wolk's nonlinear scenes follow family relationships over 50 years. Eastern European immigrant Djuro Kracha arrives in Braddock looking for work. Later, tragic and bloody strikes erupt, but don't seem to have much to do with him. His daughter Mary marries mill worker Mike Dobrecjak, who's killed in an industrial accident. Their son, Dobie, narrates, eventually saying he became a union organizer. There's no serious discussion of the how and why of this, or of his father's death.
There are fragments about working conditions, but not much is said about how these people feel about them. Instead, we get continual exposure to their personal feelings in melodramatic and semi-romantic family scenes.
Karen Baum has a luminous presence as Mary, while Chris Josephs makes Djuro seem truly likable. Justin G. Krauss has the important role of Dobie, which he carries off ably, although without passion. Fine convincing support comes from doubling Americus Rocco and Jaime Slavinsky.
Director Marci Woodruff keeps it all moving well, but could have done more to get her actors to suggest the characters' changes in age and come up with consistent accents.
While Wolk won a Writers Guild of America Award for writing an episode of Great Performances, he is more active as a TV director. This play looks TV-slick and shallow, while Bell's important themes remain just a backdrop.
OUT OF THIS FURNACE continues through July 2. Unseam'd Shakespeare at Studio Theater, Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.unseamd.com