By William Kerns
A-J ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
I am unsure about what I expected from Charlotte Keefe’s 90-minute, one-woman tribute called “If a Door Opens: A Journey with Frances Perkins.”
That is, I’m sure I was expecting a history lesson, as I was unfamiliar with the life of Perkins prior to this week. However, I did not expect this particular history lesson to have been injected with so much life and passion.
Indeed, by the time Keefe recreates memories of conflicts and conversations, stipulations and accusations, patrons know much more about Perkins’ accomplishments as the power standing behind the figurative throne of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Her life has inspired biographies. The Department of Labor headquarters in Washington, D.C., was named the Frances Perkins Building in 1980, and her Washington, D.C., home was in 1991 declared a National Historic Landmark.
But how many really knew her?
Keefe delivers a consistently captivating performance, from beginning to end.
In truth, “If a Door Opens” easily fits the format of a memory play, thanks primarily to the opening scene in which Perkins tells her husband that, by the way, “I resigned today.”
Yet with each pause for effect, each momentary change in countenance, it also becomes obvious that Keefe received excellent guidance from director Bruce Mcintosh.
True, an entire play could be devoted to all that Perkins is credited with accomplishing during her years as the first woman granted a presidential Cabinet post.
Specifically as secretary of labor during Roosevelt’s terms, Perkins enacted:
■ The first minimum-wage law.
■ The 40-hour work week.
■ The Social Security Act.
■ Unemployment insurance.
■ Child labor laws.
■ The National Labor Relations Act.
In fact, it is likely that most would expect this play, being performed in only its second city, to explore only Perkins’ years in office.
Yet Keefe doesn’t see Perkins appointed secretary of labor until Act II.
Not that the play spends undue time revealing Perkins’ own influences, or the extent of what initially made her care so deeply for the American working stiff, man, woman or child.
It would be a mistake to give “If a Door Opens” that much credit.
Before one can accept all that Perkins accomplished while working for the president, Keefe first has to establish the tone, or toughness, expressed by Perkins when working under New York Gov. Al Smith.
She accomplishes this in cleverly effective style.
Keefe has chosen to paint her portrait of Perkins in the style of serialized stories, ending with a simple blackout. Her character reappears moments later at a different time, a different place, although in the same physical place on stage. The process, however simple, demands strong acting and Keefe delivers.
Mind you, life was more cruel in many ways in the United States during the early 20th century.
Perkins’ witnessing the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which saw trapped workers leaping from windows and ended with more than 100 women killed, sparked her desire to see workers organize.
Afterward, she became secretary of the New York Consumers League and, years later, was appointed by the governor to the New York Industrial Board.
At all times, Keefe’s character makes it clear she will not be a dainty figure piece, that one should expect her to labor for change.
Perkins would not dodge even the smaller fight. Not emphasized is her early decision to change her given name of Fannie to Frances. As early as 1913, she steadfastly insisted on keeping her maiden name after marrying Paul Wilson.
Hinted at during the play is the additional struggle of being sole family breadwinner, and her husband’s hospitalization.
But when Keefe, as both playwright and star, opts to stress Perkins more as a worker and a protector of workers, than as a wife, her reasons are obvious.
Perkins was the first woman to join a presidential Cabinet. But if she failed — more than that, if she failed to be taken seriously — she knew it would be a step back for future qualified women.
Thus, a portion of this play deals with how Perkins chooses to interact with men in Congress, a decision that even involves the manner in which she dresses.
Keefe is sure to earn a laugh each time she concludes that she wore her hat “all day.”
The audiences sees Perkins recall the highs of having approved a 40-hour work week and a minimum-wage of 40 cents per hour, and the lows of being caught up in the Red Scare, her support for Social Security inspiring detractors to call her Pinky Perkins.
Keefe gives no indication of hurt feelings. Rather, an inner strength is revealed as she moves from one project to the next, finally resigning rather than defer to Harry Truman’s perceived chauvinism.
As acted by Keefe, Perkins is more devoted to goals, even as early as 1935’s National Labor Relations Act, than to making friends.
And if she fooled her peers with a motherly impression in the workplace, via that dowdy black dress, she certainly filled the “protective” motherly image when it came to workers of all ages.
Still, arriving almost as bookends are scenes in which she exchanges Congress for home and husband, and her voice alters as much as goals and needs.
“If a Door Opens” is an often fascinating, and always wonderfully acted, theatrical tribute.
Those attending will leave having been both educated and entertained.
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