As the title suggests, “Roebling,” now playing at the newly renovated Roebling Museum, is about John and Washington Roebling and their roles in creating the Brooklyn Bridge, an iconic structure that has become almost a part of American myth.An icon of industrialization throughout the world, the Brooklyn Bridge, built in the mid-19th century, was a product of New Jersey minds and factories. The bridge was originally designed by John Roebling, a German engineer from Muhlhausen who emigrated to the United States in 1831. Suspension bridges already existed in the United States and abroad, but what Roebling did was to replace the hemp cables then in use with wire cables (which were manufactured at the Roebling works in Trenton), thus making it possible for the bridges to be much longer and to carry considerably more weight.
Because of its scale, the Manhattan to Brooklyn bridge Roebling first proposed was considered an impossibility by many, but he had no doubt his ideas were sound. Unfortunately, shortly after beginning work on the bridge (in 1868) Roebling’s foot was crushed by a ferry, and refusing any treatment for his wound, he died of tetanus in 1869. His son, Washington, took over the project, and today’s Brooklyn Bridge was opened in 1883. Washington Roebling made several important improvements to the bridge design and further developed bridge-building techniques. When he developed the bends and was unable to oversee work on the bridge at the site (he could observe the site from his apartment with his telescope), his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who had on her own been studying engineering — unheard of for a woman in the mid-19th century — was able not just to deliver her husband’s messages to the workers at the bridge and bring questions back to him, but to understand the bridge-building process and act on her own, something that was truly remarkable in the mid-19th century.
Roebling was a model town, with well-built brick row houses for the workers and larger free-standing houses for the higher ups. The town also was home to an auditorium and a variety of factories, including a large number of wire mills. The former gatehouse has been converted to a museum. The auditorium has just been restored, and “Roebling: The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge” seems an appropriate way to celebrate its restoration.
In addition to the problems of John Roebling’s early death and Washington Roebling’s debilitating illness, the bridge project suffered from the dangerous behavior of Haldis Dickey, one of Roebling’s rivals and the villain in Violi’s play. After Dickey convinced the East River Bridge Company that it was a conflict of interest for Roebling’s company to supply the wire rope when Roebling was the engineer in charge of the project, Dickey’s company supplied the wire rope. Dickey thought the whole contract should have gone to him, and he worked to damage Roebling’s reputation, apparently undisturbed by the fact that by not supplying the wire rope at the strength the contract called for, he was threatening many people’s lives.
In the play several people do die on the job, which worries Roebling terribly. The East River Bridge Company meets several times a year to review the project, and Dickey tries at these meetings to convince the company’s directors to make him the chief engineer and throw out Roebling. He seems perfectly happy to lie outright to gain his goal.
Lee Benson, who plays E. F. Farrington, head of construction for the bridge and a man who was close to both Roeblings, also designed the sets for this production. His idea for the set is simple but extremely clever, making it easy to convey a sense of a variety of places without a large team of stage hands. The production takes place not on the auditorium’s raised stage, which can be shut off by a curtain, but on the roomy space in front of the raised stage. There are three areas, each with minimal props; these remain unchanged throughout: the room where the East River Bridge Company meets is furnished with tables and chairs, John Roebling’s apartment is a comfortable space with stuffed furniture, and the third area represents the entrance to a bar. Above the set is a screen on which are projected drawings and photographs of the bridge in various stages of construction. The entrance to the caisson also appears, allowing a dramatic moment as the men emerge from it.
“Roebling” is being produced by Theater to Go, which has been producing comedies and interactive theater for close to 20 years. The founder and head of Theater to Go, Ruth Markoe, serves as director for this production. She has managed to keep the story line clear, even when some of the scenes are ambiguous. The cast is large — and accomplished. Beau Chemin plays John Roebling. Derek Capre is Washington Roebling. Capre is new to the theater, having served as a corporate executive. Chemin has been doing this for years.
Sarah McIlhenny, who plays Emily Roebling, has been involved in theater since the age of five. James Houston, as Haldis Dickey, manages to curl his lips in a way that leaves no doubt about the level of his villainy. Other members of the cast include Mark Ott, Tim Moran, Dennis McGuire, Brian Riccioni, Mickey Levitan, Arthur Miller, John Russell, Jennifer Huckleberry, and Sharon Seeman. Ruth Rittman is responsible for the costumes, which for the women can be elaborate, involving bustles and many layers.
The author, Mark Violi, has also been active as a screen writer. Two of his feature film scripts are currently in production. He has also served as an actor both for stage and screen as well as in commercials. Some may find that the script of “Roebling” could benefit from some fine tuning and polishing, but the story remains compelling. And there is something special about seeing this play in the place built by descendants of John and Washington Roebling and knowing that surrounding you in the audience are descendants of the people who made the events pictured on stage happen.
“Roebling: The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge,” Roebling Museum, 100 Second Avenue, Roebling. Friday through Sunday, October 22 to 24. New Jersey premiere of Mark L. Violi’s new play based on the story of the efforts to complete the bridge from 1869 to 1883. Produced by Theater to Go and Pierrot Productions. $20 includes admission to the museum before the show. 609-499-7200 or www.roeblingmuseum.org.