In “To The Bone,” an exquisitely acted and splendidly directed new play by Lisa Ramirez that’s part of the Theater:Village Festival, Reina greets her niece Carmen, who is newly arrived from Honduras, with the news that she is going to try to get her a job in the local poultry plant.
“Why would you send your niece to work there?” Olga, Reina’s housemate, says to her with contempt.
“Olga, stay out of this,” Reina spits.
“I wouldn’t send my daughter to work there,” Olga says.
But Olga herself works there, as does Reina, and the other woman in the household, Juana, who is so stressed-out that she has the disturbing habit of sleepwalking, accompanied by zombie-like utterances such as “Go back, go back” and “Dirt like smoke.”
They are Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan women, documented or undocumented, who feel they have no choice but to work at a job they hate, with an abusive boss.
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They are among the many immigrant women in the United States who work in the meatpacking industry, which the United States Department of Labor has classified as one of the nation’s most hazardous industries, with the highest rate of injuries.
Over the past decade, poultry processing plants in Sullivan County, about 100 miles north of New York City in upstate New York, have replaced the chopped liver and comedy that once thrived in the now-defunct Catskills resorts of “the Borscht Belt.”
Playwright Ramirez has based her play on interviews with meatpacking workers of Sullivan County. But her touching drama, ultimately a tragedy, transcends her research, and goes beyond exposure of the unjust conditions. In some ways, it serves as a companion piece to another recent play about exploited workers, My Manana Comes, about people (also mostly immigrants) employed in New York’s restaurant industry. Both plays focus attention on believable individual characters, rather than cases, and follow in a tradition of compelling social justice theater most commonly exemplified by the work of John Steinbeck.
The story, which takes an unfortunate melodramatic turn, is nonetheless made vivid and credible by the remarkable cast.
The playwright herself portrays Olga, a Salvadoran who has both the lease to the house and a green card, which helps explain why she is bolder than the rest of the household, but, as it turns out, also more reckless.
Paola Lazaro-Munoz is Lupe, Olga’s 20-year-old hip-hop-loving, skateboarding daughter, with a purple streak in her hair, and streak of rebellion in her manner. She is the only woman in the play who has escaped the factory life. She works in a clinic, and dreams of moving to Manhattan, “or Brooklyn even.” She serves as referee between her mother and Reina, portrayed by Annie Henk. Both Henk and Lisa Fernandez as Juana allow us to read the fear, fatigue and frustration of their characters’ lives in their faces – subtle and moving performances. Xochitl Romero is fine as Carmen, the newcomer who does get that job in the factory, after amusing coaching from the other women – employment that all the women wind up regretting.
Dan Donmingues plays Jorge, who earns his living as a kind of gypsy cap service driving the women to work and back, and who courts Carmen with a winning diffidence and grace. Haynes Thigpen does not overplay his thankless role as the villain, the plant’s manager, and Gerardo Rodriguez as the assistant manager evokes something close to sympathy for a man stuck in the middle.
Director Lisa Peterson and the design team do wonders with the small Studio Theater of the Cherry Lane, using a few props and effects (chicken coops that climb the wall with little flashing lights in each one, in place of actual chickens) that relay the noise and claustrophobia and general horror of the plant, as well as the restricted lives of the women even when they are not working.
For all the sadness in “To The Bone,” there is something uplifting as well in viewing a group of people – and a company of actors — who work so well together. By the time we’re read what Carmen writes in her diary, we’ve already seen the truth of it:
“The house is like a machine but it’s different from the one at the plant. There is a system in place here and the women make it work. The women who live here were forced into this unnatural setting- away from their families away from their countries. They fight a lot- in fact they fight all the time. And yet, from the beep- beep-beep of the very first clock in the morning to the last light going off at night there is an order in this house that is much like a heart- an artificial heart – borne out of necessity- but functioning nonetheless.”
To The Bone
Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St. in Greenwich Village),
Written by Lisa Ramirez
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Theresa Squire, lighting design by Russell H. Champa, sound design by Jill BC Du Boff
Cast: Dan Domingues, Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk, Paola Lazaro-Munoz, Lisa Ramirez, Gerardo Rodriguez, Xochitl Romero, Haynes Thigpen
To The Bone is set to run through October 4.