Review: Grist From the Mill Delivers a Good Storytelling Experience

On Friday we were at Carnegie Stage for the debut of Grist From the Mill, the first piece of a storytelling trilogy from local playwright and creator, Lissa Brennan. The trilogy boasted infusing Irish murder ballads with the steel industry. This piece was set in 1902 Pittsburgh.

This performance was not what I expected, but has stayed on my mind all weekend.

Lissa Brennan strode onto stage in a long dark gown and bare feet. The panels of her dress reminded me a warrior girded for battle, holding her fast as she spoke thousands of words. When she inhaled deeply to voice a particularly powerful moment, the dress rose up stretching with her abdomen and lungs, the fabric supporting her muscles and breath with a freedom one does not associates with early 20th century women’s fashion.

She wove a story about a boy, a girl, a wife, a family, and a steel mill.

The tale was gripping, veering a little too far off the path at times far from the steel mill, but satisfying with it’s detailed description of love, sex, and violence.

I’m glad this is a trilogy. Because I want more. I suspect these characters will not move forward into the next chapter, but I want to hear the wife’s tale. Perhaps her misery is justified by the boy’s true character rather than how we are led to perceive him. My mind kept straying to her, much along the lines of Bertha Mason aka Antoinette Cosway from Jane Eyre. What does it mean when a secondary character lingers while the main characters start to fade?

The opening segment dove into industrial history, especially workplace related deaths. It was a bit disconnected from the main part of the story, even with an ending that returns to that theme. Note. I had never before heard that industrial deaths attributed to pneumonia were often fabricated to cover the true culprit of carbon monoxide poisoning. That shocked and horrified me, especially given my genealogy hobby that has listed pneumonia as a cause of death for scores of workers.

It could be me reacting to the potential for a puddler to fall into a vat of molten iron. I remember in 1986 when my father’s coworker fell into a boiling tar pit to his death. It was emotionally scarring for me as I could not let go of the images my mind conjured after overhearing the story.

The Pittsburgh Press
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
10 Jan 1986, Fri • Page 22

Whatever happens in the second and third parts of this trilogy will be enthralling, I am sure. And we have the new play from Lissa Brennan debuting in March at Carnegie Stage. Hoard is a two-woman show exploring trauma and healing.

Grist From the Mill could be tighter or perhaps add a line about the wife or maybe trickle into part two, but the story  was less powerful than the storyteller. Brennan was all in for this, using her body and voice and movement and tone to draw us all into an early 20th century steel neighborhood with dangers lurking inside the mill and beyond. She was intense and fierce, forcing us to peer closely at the human toll of the Industrial Revolution and progress, demanding that we gaze into these stories and facts with unflinching honesty.

The setting is minimalist with a few scenic paintings as background and simple stool. Brennan self-financed this play through crowdfunding for her Dog & Pony Show production company (donations still accepted.) To learn more about Brennan, check out this blog post at Off The Wall’s website.


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