“My father told me that when God got finished making the vampire and the rattlesnake, he had some awful substance left over, and he used that to make the scab,” says Gilda (played by Monica Wyche) in “Scab.” Written by Gini Diiorio, this fine new play about the complexities of modern working-class life is making its world premiere in the Premiere Stages series at Kean University in Union through Sept. 25, with John J. Wooten directing.
The kind of scab she’s talking about, of course, is a worker who defies a union strike. Someone, that is, whom audience members may take an initial dislike to, simply because of that. But Diiorio does a great job of making Gilda and the play’s only other character, Eduardo (played by John Anthony Torres), sympathetic.
In this play, which is set in 2018 (which leads to some interesting discussion of then-President Trump, and “Springsteen on Broadway”), Gilda is a former union leader in a New York-area paper goods factory that is relocating to Mexico. For one last $10,000 payment before the factory vanishes, she has agreed to train Eduardo, who lives in Mexico and will be doing her job there. Union members protest outside the factory, but Gilda and Eduardo cross the picket line, every day, for a week — enduring the wrath of the crowd, which is never seen by us but impacts the story by injuring Eduardo’s hand and defacing Gilda’s car.
It’s hard to begrudge either character the choice to become a scab. Gilda (a divorced, middle-aged mother with a teenage daughter) and Eduardo (married with two young daughters of his own) don’t have a lot of other options, and direly need the money. Eduardo is just in the United States temporarily. And Gilda believes that, with the factory closing, the union has nothing left to offer her.
“They (the union) want me to sit at home and make like Woody Guthrie or some shit,” she says, scornfully.
So Gilda, hardened by her years of factory work, shows Eduardo the ropes, and the almost puppyishly eager young man pays diligent attention. A bond grows between the two, but also friction. Gilda can’t help feeling resentful at what Eduardo represents — the company’s future, without her. She also has deep-rooted, ugly prejudices that she hides at first, but that eventually come to the surface. Also revealed, in time, is Eduardo’s somewhat disdainful view of American culture.
Diiorio has built impressive depth into a play that’s mostly made up of two workers talking in a drab factory (quite believably realistic, thanks to designer Behanie Wampol Watson). He gets a lot of laughs out of language — Eduardo’s difficulty comprehending the colorful idioms that Gilda often uses. And he makes Gilda’s love of her job — the fact that she has come to see the machines almost as living beings that have to be understood intuitively, and not just mechanically operated — quite touching.
She’s not just losing a paycheck. It goes much deeper than that.
Diiorio also has found a brilliant way to make a play that seems, at times, like it is mainly a portrait of two mismatched people brought together by chance, build to a stunner of an ending. I was hanging on every word.
Remaining performances of “Scab,” at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center at Kean University in Union, are at 8 p.m. Sept. 16-17 and 22-24, and at 3 p.m. Sept. 17-18 and 24-25. Visit premierestagesatkean.com.
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