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Frayed Yarn

Fells Point Corner Theatre Unspools a Sentimental Soaper in Ella's Song

Finest Work Song: Chris Graybill serenades Laura Gifford in the labor-leader bio-drama Ella's Song.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 7/2/2003

Ella's Song

Jim Cary

The labor movement is not known for the subtlety of its rhetoric. Neither is musical theater. Combining the two is tricky business, as audiences will discover in Ella's Song, Jim Cary's entrant in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Based on the true story of murdered strike leader and union balladeer Ella Mae Wiggins, Cary and songwriter Jim Emberger manage to hit not only every obvious note, but a fair share of false ones as well. So despite some outstanding performances from director Barry Feinstein's cast at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, Ella's Song turns about to be a rather tedious, maudlin affair.

In April 1929 workers at the Loray Mill textile plant in Gastonia, N.C., frustrated by unsafe factory conditions and exhausted by the piecemeal pay practices of their Rhode Island bosses, attempted a factory-wide walkout. Organized by the National Textile Worker's Union, an arm of the American Communist Party, the strike effort was marred by violent confrontations between workers and police, and later by the unsolved murders of the Gastonia police chief and strike leader Ella Mae Wiggins. Despite its ultimate failure, the Loray Mill strike set off a series of workers' actions across the Southeast that galvanized that region's labor movement, calling attention to working conditions, women's rights, and child labor. Wiggins' death became a national cause célèbre, and several of her ballads have earned a permanent place in union songbooks.

Ella's Song is an idealized version of the Loray Mills strike, stripped of any unpleasantness that might detract from the martyrdom of its mythical heroine. Ella Stafford (Laura Gifford), a struggling sharecropper with songwriting aspirations, is charmed by a "Glory Mills" recruiter, Carl (Chris Graybill), who's touring the country recruiting fresh labor for the booming textile industry. Lured by the prospect of good pay, flush toilets, and schooling for her 13-year-old son (Elias Schutzman), Ella convinces her hotheaded husband (Mark Poremba) to move to the mill town, where she finds camaraderie among the spool-room women and an appreciative audience for her six-string ballads on Sunday night sing-alongs.

The rest of the plot unfolds with production-line predictability. The kindly owners of Glory Mills sell out to ruthless Northerners, who promptly install automatic machinery designed to squeeze maximum productivity from the already overtaxed workers. (The evildoer capitalists are here represented by the nebbishy Efficiency Expert, actor Richard Peck in a spirited impersonation of what Annie Hall's Grammy Hall would call "a real Jew.") Ella's husband gets into a fight with his supervisor (Tomm Buckley) and is run out of town--yes, "on a rail"--forcing her son to drop out of school and join Momma on the factory floor. When one of the spool-room girls is blinded by a flying weaver's knotter and is subsequently fired by the heartless boss, the workers get all riled up and convince a reluctant Ella to be their leader, on account of her stirring songwriting abilities.

We won't give away the big ending except to reassure you that Cary has cleansed the story of any ambiguity surrounding the real Ella's death and made sure we know just who the bad guys are. There's some potential in a subplot involving Ella's relationship with her dead father (Tom Blair), but it doesn't really add up to much. Cary's men are all bastards and his women all saints; it's hardly a fair fight. The script has bits of genuine lyricism, but it's mostly a string of Southern clichés broken up by mawkish monologues. The spool-room women are like the salon ladies in Steel Magnolias, without any of the humor or sauciness.

Jim Emberger's music doesn't help much. With only four numbers breaking up each 90-minute act, the contrivance of characters breaking into song is made even more awkward by the music's relative scarcity. Not that we want more. Emberger's insipid ditties ("Lovin' men is like pickin' cotton . . . ") are so earnest and flat they would fit right into Christopher Guest's folk mockumentary, A Mighty Wind. Feinstein, meanwhile, directs his actors as if they're on a Broadway stage; exaggerated facial expressions and huge body language might be useful if you're playing to the second balcony, but it's kind of unnerving in an 85-seat theater. There's even an extended group sob sequence. Yikes.

The weak material and bombastic direction only underscore the significant accomplishments of the cast. Gifford is absolutely terrific as the title character, rounding out her cardboard character with real warmth and humanity, and Graybill is equally charming as her would-be suitor. Also notable are Beverly Shannon as a fiery rabble-rouser and Buckley as the ruthless management yes-man. Sadly, even the most inspired performances can't keep this paper boat from sinking under the weight of its relentless sermonizing.

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