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Theatre in Review: To the Bone (Cherry Lane Theatre)

Xochitl Romero, Annie Henk, Paola Lazaro-Muñoz, Liza Fernandez, Lisa Ramierz. Photo: Monique Carboni.

There must be something in the air: To the Bone is the second play this month examining the plight of undocumented workers who prop up the US economy with nothing but scars to show for it. The first was My Mañana Comes, produced by The Playwrights Realm, about restaurant workers in Manhattan. It's indicative of the subject's richness that these plays are thoroughly unalike, but for one thing: Both are tense, gripping dramas that are all but guaranteed to make your blood boil.

In To the Bone, the playwright Lisa Ramirez looks at houseful of Latina women living in Sullivan County, New York. Three of them work long hours in a chicken processing plant, a job that leaves them exhausted and prey to repetitive stress injuries. Olga, the house's owner, is Salvadoran, but she has a green card, giving her an advantage over the others; she is also one tough cookie, a truth-teller with an acid tongue. Olga doesn't care who she offends, be it her tenants or the plant management that treats them like dirt. Sharing their home is Reina, a Honduran, who has spent so many years in the US trying to get ahead that her children back home no longer speak to her, and Juana, a Guatemalan whose sleepwalking episodes hint at the tragedy that haunts her. Unlike Olga, Reina and Juana are deeply religious, go-along-to-get-along types. They dare not be noticed, for fear of being sent home. Olga's daughter, Lupe, is a branch off the same tree, a feisty, hip-hop-loving college student -- she writes her own raps -- who plans to be a lawyer and fight injustice. (Her ambition is to attend NYU, a notion that keeps Olga up nights.)

The three women -- minus Lupe, who works as a receptionist in a clinic -- toil on the line, cutting the breasts off of dead birds all day long. It's a tedious, grisly task, made worse by squalid working conditions that include freezing temperatures, no breaks, and a management that ruthlessly drives them to produce at an ever-faster rate. When Juana passes out, she gets a glass of water thrown in her face, followed by a rebuke and the threat of a mass firing. Jorge, the Guatemalan who drives the ladies to work, fills their heads with horror stories from other neighboring plants -- for example, the union organizer who is bullied by management and reassigned to the task of killing male chicks and feeding them to a machine that grinds them up. Olga, secure in her resident status, insists that the fellow should have quit on the spot. Reina and Juana are horrified at the thought. Still, no matter what any of them says, they are caught in a vise, and they know it.

The play's action is driven by the arrival of Carmen, Reina's niece, who has come to the US to earn cash for her ailing mother's operation. The fragile, innocent Carmen seems painfully unready for this harsh world, a fact laid bare when, coached by the others, she applies for a job at the plant, offering rote answers that don't always match up to the questions posed by Daryl, the manager. (The ladies warn her not to admit to knowing them; any bit of information is potential ammunition against them.) Still, Carmen tentatively embraces her new life, striking up a budding friendship with Lupe and catching the eye of the gentle, courtly Jorge, who escorts her to Walmart, where she is dazzled by the abundance on display. (As Lupe sourly notes, Walmart is the only entertainment Sullivan County has to offer.) Disaster strikes, however, when Carmen is assigned to the night shift; separated from the watchful eyes of the others, she is raped by Daryl.

The rest of To the Bone traces the repercussions of this crime, which come to affect everyone. Carmen becomes pregnant and is counseled by Lupe to have an abortion. Lupe enlists the aid of a lawyer from her college, trying to build a case against Daryl. Olga joins in the effort, but it is not enough to contain her rage and she acts out, with unforeseen results. Reina, grieving for her niece, and Juana find themselves exposed and their jobs imperiled.

Ramirez, who interviewed immigrant workers in Sullivan County, brings a highly attuned eye to her muckraking tale, casting a harsh light on the untenable way these women are forced to live. Illegals like Reina and Juana have no recourse when victimized; all they can do is keep their heads down and try to endure. Olga has greater freedom, but years of grueling work have left her permanently embittered. When the besotted Jorge consults her, asking her about her feelings for her long-gone husband, she replies, "I don't like to remember that part of my life, Jorge." The way that Ramirez, who also plays Olga, delivers that line, casts a chill over the entire theatre.

There are moments of fuzzy storytelling in To the Bone, and the action turns a little melodramatic here and there, but most of the time the author's burning indignation keeps one deeply engaged. She is aided by Lisa Peterson's crisp, well-paced direction, which avoids any sentimentality and also adds a number of stylized sequences -- showing the women undergoing their robotic morning ritual and revealing the deadening pace of work on the line -- that make clear just how trapped they are. The cast, led by Ramirez as the harshly unyielding Olga, is first-rate. Dan Domingues is touching as Jorge, who tries to ease Carmen's agony with a marriage proposal accompanied by a rose-colored portrait of their future life back in Guatemala. As Juana, Liza Fernandez underplays skillfully, pulling off the play's most powerful sequence, in which she describes the fate of her lost daughter. Annie Henk's Reina proves to be a spirited sparring partner with Olga, whom she is forever trying to calm down. Paola Lázaro-Muñoz is engaging as Lupe, who alone among this impromptu family has reason to think about the future. Xochitl Romero brings an authentic sweetness to the role of Carmen.

To further place us in the world of To the Bone, Rachel Hauck's set design completely reconfigures the studio space at the Cherry Lane, making room for a kitchen, porch, bedroom, and, at the factory, the manager's office. The layout is a little hard to figure out at first -- I kept wondering if the characters were inside or outside the house -- but the overall effect is extremely evocative, and, as a bonus, it allows for rapid changes of location between the home and the plant. Russell H. Champa's lighting casts a harsh fluorescent glow on the work scenes, and reshapes the space as needed the rest of the time. Theresa Squire's costumes feel authentic. Jill BC Du Boff's sound design fluently mixes a variety of effects -- cars, the plant's machinery, phones, and alarm clocks, with a variety of styles of incidental music.

Ramirez is an experienced actress who seems to have more recently taken up writing; she has a strong ear for dialogue and a knack for drawing believable characters with commendable economy. Most of all she has a strong, scalding point of view that all but demands we consider the ongoing injustice of a system that exploits poor workers while insisting that they are a drain on the economy. To the Bone ends with one of the characters moving on to another life. The ladies urge her not to forget them. "She won't," says Olga, with rock-solid certainty. She's right -- and neither will we.--David Barbour

(17 September 2014)

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