A gripping mix of journalism and drama, Charles Cissel’s new play “God Steeling” is about the lives of the men who have built our cities.
Those brave souls who work on girders hundreds of feet in the air, risking life and limb so that we have offices to work in and apartments to live in.
The play is set in a New York City bar in the fall of 1980, when anger over the hostage situation in Iran is reaching its peak, and American voters were about to toss out incumbent President Jimmy Carter in favor of Ronald Reagan.
In the program notes, Cissel writes that “God Steeling” is based on interviews he did with iron workers over a three year period.
The play has been workshopped at Shetler Studios on West 54th Street in Manhattan, and the results of this labor have just been made public by Wave Productions.
“God Steeling” gains a lot of authenticity from James J. Fenton’s very grungy and very realistic rendering of the bar where the characters hang out before and after work. With only two rows of seating circling the bar set, we quickly get the feeling we are right in the middle of the action.
A young Irish woman named Sioban (Estelle Bajou) — who doesn’t have a green card and worries about being shipped back home — presides over the bar where we first meet Bunny (D. Zhonzinsky). a middle-aged Vietnam vet who stopped working after a near fatal accident and is caring for his sick wife.
The four other guys who hang out in the bar — Johnny (Michael Basile), Sweets (Jay Ward), Rook (Zach Wegner) and Flea (Joe Cross) — represent a range of ages and ethniticities, and we quickly get a feel for the things that bond them and the elements that cause considerable tension just under the surface.
Rook (short for rookie) is connected to a union leader and might not be up to the risky work. He also had a fling with Sioban that he claims he has little memory of.
Flea is one of the hundreds of Native Americans who have gravitated to steel work in New York City, playing a vital role in the building of the metropolis for many decades. He talks a lot about the feeling of flying he gets on the job.
Johnny is a hothead, quickly moving out of his young years and toward middle age, with a feeling that life is starting to leave him behind.
Sweets is the one black man in the group who seems to fit right in but who is also involved in one of the biggest emotional explosions in the play.
“God Steeling” often reminded me of the work of one of my favorite journalists, Studs Terkel, and his masterpiece “Working” in which he gave voice to ordinary working people in a manner that had never been attempted before. Through his great listening ability and endless empathy, Terkel seemed to put us into direct contact with the people he talked to.
Cissel could, perhaps, find a sharper ending for “God Steeling” — the action stops rather abruptly and we are sent on our way — but I loved spending time with his people and I can’t imagine them getting a better presentation from any other acting ensemble.
The illusion of theater seems to fall away as you watch these actors — under the direction of Robin A. Paterson — merge with the people they are playing. Cissel has made it possible for us to share some time with folks we might never get to meet in the “real” world.
(“God Steeling” is running through March 24 at Shetler Studios, 244 W. 54th St. For ticket information, visit www.smarttix.com)