I haven’t seen everything but it’s likely that To The Bone is one of the best dramas currently playing in New York. It’s a gritty, realist play focused on several Hispanic women forming a shared household and employed in a chicken processing factory. The characters are vivid and individualized, the dialog terrific, and the issues matter.
The women have arrived, most of them, through dangerous migrations from countries in South and Central America to upper New York State: their job is “cutting the breasts off dead chickens” — this particular assignment underlining the plays’ theme of brutality toward women. The work is hard, repetitive, cold and disgusting but, compared with other jobs open to them, it pays relatively well. The boss Daryl, a tall, blond brute, pushes the women to work faster, goading them with punishing denial of bathroom breaks. The Hispanic Lalo is his enforcer.
A tenuous equilibrium of dominance and exploitation has been reached but, in the course of the play, human nature at its best and worst causes it to crash into tragedy. Olga’s the rebel, a tough, angry woman fired by a sense of justice, who talks back to Lalo and Daryl, insists on bathroom breaks and goads the others to stand up for themselves — which smacks of unfairness to the other immigrants since Olga’s the only one with a green card.
Carmen, a fragile, poetic girl, brutalized on her way from Honduras arrives inward and depressed, but she warms to the tender love from her Aunt, Reina, sisterly love from Lupe, Olga’s daughter, and the beautifully gentlemanly but passionate love from Jorge. Daryl, though, is no gentleman, and the boss has all the cards, all the more so when the law — advocated by young Lupe who has plans to become a lawyer — seems to be worse than useless for those here illegally, threatening them with deportation.
This play creates a world focused on the women, the two men they encounter at the plant, and Jorge — what a memorably sweet guy he is — a taxi driver who drives them to and from work, $5.00 for the round trip. Most of the action is centered on the house with a swinging screen Olga runs. Reina is a calm woman who “takes it” — and who can’t stand Olga’s pushiness and rebelliousness that gets them in trouble with the boss. Given the context, Reina’s not wrong, as Olga’s vaunted sense of justice leads her to commit a hideously unfair act, to fan the flames it ignites, and to catalyze huge losses.
A problem with the play is that the author doesn’t seem to realize she’s written a true tragedy. The resolution is too easy, even “feel good.” Lupe sets off for NYC and, we think, higher education. The women who remain in the house will, it seems, get along fairly well. One, booted from the factory because of Olga’s actions, even likes her new job better. This pleasant resolution is implausible. The losses these women have experienced, and the irrevocable suffering Olga causes, lead to no easy resolution. Olga can’t just “go on” — her only hope for redemption is some kind of profound penance. A hug from a daughter just doesn’t do it.
The performances are superlative. Lisa Ramirez, playing Olga in her own play, is tough to the point of brutality, but with an irresistible charisma in spite of perpetrating ill actions in the cause of good. Her beautiful, exhausted face — she reminded me of Anna Magnani in Open City — speaks volumes of her life experiences. Paola Lázaro-Munoz gives an outstanding performance as Lupe with her no nonsense affect, forward head carriage, youthful on a skate board and adult in her understanding of how the world works. Dan Domingues as Jorge particularly touched my heart. His sidewise glances while driving the women, working things out in his mind toward helping and understanding, are expressive, as is his subtle emotional evolution toward manly loving.
Annie Henk brings a motherly strength to the part of Reina who, grounded in common sense survivorship, can’t stand Olga.. Liza Fernandez conveys Juana’s huge, personal grief even through occasional valiant and lovely smiles. As Carmen, Xochitl Romero is fragile but tough enough to say what needs to be said when it comes to getting a job. Gerardo Rodriguez plays a strong Lalo, the boss’s man who finds a way to speak up for himself to the boss. Haynes Thigpen as Daryl is a convincing all-out brute toward undocumented women while fearful of his father.
Rachel Hauck’s brilliant “chicken coop” environment set, with lighting by Russell H. Champa and sound by Jill BC Du Boff, and Theresa Squire’s costumes — scruffy and touching — add to the sense that one has shared the world of the characters.
Ramirez represents a system that is socially unjust but where actions are fueled by personalities. To The Bone brushes near greatness in its interplay of character and fate. Like Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday, the author seems to draw back from looking full in the face the powerful tragedy she has created.
To the Bone plays at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York City’s West Village through October 4, 2014.