Arts Listings

‘A Shirtwaist Tale’ Is the Show to See at the JCC

By Betsy Hunton
Friday November 09, 2007

Once in a great while, everything goes right. It’s not very often, mind you, but it does happen. This time it’s the play that’s ending its two-week run this weekend at the East Bay Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. 

The short version of this review is that everyone should drop everything and go see it. 

Aside from the fact that A Shirtwaist Tale is a great deal of fun and the music is delightful, it’s probably the easiest way you’ll ever find to get a real look at how we got to where we are in stuff like unions and women’s rights. 

(Hint: Aren’t you glad that those women in 1909 got work hours restricted to 52 hours a week plus not more than two hours of overtime on any one day?) 

Please note: There were men involved too. And we have some first-class performances by them on stage. 

But women—unable (or considered unfit?) to vote are presented here as leading the massive labor movement which caused so many changes. It’s a piece of history that really should be out there. 

A Shirtwaist Tale is a remarkable use of solid historical background for what is, in fact, a classic musical. There’s a full story—with a happy ending—quite comfortably intertwined with the real conflicts of the political struggles. 

Playwright Judith Offer has effectively and intelligently elected to create a 1950s style musical—complete with the now almost lost traditional third act. 

Offer says, “American playwrights are not addressing American subjects as much as they should.” 

She plans to write more “history” plays. That should strike anyone who sees her work in Shirtwaist as a really good idea.  

The uniformly excellent cast is astonishingly large by contemporary standards: Fifteen (Count’em 15!) actors for 16 roles. And the qualities of the performances are excellent. It is, in fact, so strong a production as to finally lay waste to the idea that all the best actors have turned professional.  

Quite probably, they just like to eat.