Like a patchwork quilt, this new musical by Creighton Irons and Sean Mahoney "Factory Girls" depicts the dreams and the realities of the women who flocked to Lowell, Massachusetts to work in the textile mills in the 1840s.
"We didn't come to just spin thread... we came to live a daughter's dream," they sing in a recurring motif.
Against a backdrop of overlapping swaths of swooping fabric set behind banks of cogs and mechanical belts, the girls who came to Lowell become a single character. Briefly, they tell us why they've left their homes -- to escape the farms, or poverty, or drunken absent parents, to make something of themselves, or in hopes of an education, or to keep an eye on a beau who has moved to Lowell.
Although the play is described as the story of best friends Sarah Bagley and Harriet Farley and their journey as factory girls and working on the publication "The Lowell Offering," to their eventual rift over whether or not to strike over deteriorating work conditions, the cast of 10 women remain mostly nameless, enacting archetypes rather than fully-formed characters.
In 17 episodic scenes directed by Neil Donohoe, "Factory Girls" provides snapshot glimpses of the communal lives of these girls, without providing a through line plot.
The girls arrived in Lowell with high hopes of improvement and independence -- both financial and intellectual -- and celebrate the fact that "for the first time in our lives we had money of our own," as well as the chance to read great works, and write for themselves.
In the attic of the boarding house, they formed an "improvement circle" where they shared their writings and joined to publish "The Lowell Offering."
"I've never been so happy," they exult, until the unrelenting brutality of the looms --- described as "a monster and a goddess" --- and the greed of the factory owners and overseers (portrayed by the four men in the cast) decide to lock the windows, increase their hours, and lower their pay.
Choreography, by BCM faculty member Michelle Chassť, reflects the monotony of working the inexorable machines, mimicking the mechanics of operating the shuttles and feeding the looms as they sing, "Think like a machine. Slip inside the gears. Forget about your home, forget about your fears."
And the girls' tight-knit "improvement circle" is shattered by conflict after one of their own dies because of the work conditions. Should they petition for a 10-hour day or give in to the fear that rebellion will jeopardize their lives and reputations? Could civil negotiations achieve what bombast could not?
The process leads to the Lowell Labor Reform Movement, which asserts "As is woman, so is the race" --- an equal rights/feminist point of view one doesn't associate with those early days of America.
Steven Ladd Jones conducts his band (piano, bass, drums, and guitars) through songs that range from folk music simplicity to anachronistic rap numbers. ("So spruce. So spruce / No more country funk. Get rid of that blouse / If you ever wanna get a spouse").
Although history tells us that labor reforms, or even rights for women, did not occur until decades after the action of "Factory Girls," the show ends on an upbeat note, as each woman steps forward and tells what she or her descendants accomplished -- from becoming a union organizer and the first female telegraph operator (Sarah Bagley, founder of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association), to a successful published poet (Lucy Larcom).
And, in a subtle hint at possible improvements to be found in the future, the four oppressive male figures in the play join in the cast's happy stomp finale as they sing, "Live free or die... I never thought I could ever get so far from home."