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To the Bone

Lisa Ramirez gives a platform to the voices of illegal immigrants working at a poultry factory.

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk, and Lisa Ramirez in a scene from Ramirez's To the Bone, directed by Lisa Peterson, at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(photo courtesy of the production)

The plight of the undocumented worker seems to be on the tip of off-Broadway's tongue these days, what with Elizabeth Irwin's My Mañana Comes at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater and now Lisa Ramirez's To the Bone at the Cherry Lane Theatre. While Irwin explores male Mexican émigrés working as Manhattan restaurant busboys, Ramirez takes the female track in her new drama, following a trio of women who immigrated to the United States looking for a better life and instead work in a poultry plant in New York State's Sullivan County.

Inspired by interviews Ramirez conducted with Latina immigrants, To the Bone dramatizes their stories as opposed to creating a piece of verbatim theater. The playwright herself takes the leading role as the strong-willed and strong-minded Olga, who is determined to win better working conditions for herself and her undocumented living companions Reina (Annie Henk) and Juana (Liza Fernandez). A secondary plotline follows the arrival of Carmen (Xochitl Romero), Reina's niece, who is brutally attacked at the hands of the factory's manager, Daryl (Haynes Thigpen).

Just as important as Ramirez's Olga is her college-age daughter Lupe (Paola Lázaro-Muñoz), who works as a receptionist in a medical clinic while taking night classes to fulfill her dream of attending NYU 's law school. It's Lupe's passion for law that propels the play's second half, which follows the ramifications of Carmen's assault and Olga's course of revenge. As the well-structured first act veers into the darkness of Act 2, the play's lack of focus comes to light. As Ramirez covers a lot of ground — immigrant working conditions, the story of a mother and her daughter, and a romance — we're pulled in too many directions to feel satisfied. The ending is particularly murky and wraps up an otherwise untidy play with a bow that shouldn't be as orderly as it is.

Director Lisa Peterson provides the script with an environmental and highly theatrical physical production. She elicits fine performances all around, from Ramirez's fiery and impassioned Olga to Thigpen's detestable Daryl. Romero is particularly tender as Carmen, and Dan Domingues brings heart to his work as Jorge, a friend who gets caught in the crossfire. Rachel Hauck's ornate set, mostly confined to the theater's walls, and Jill BC DuBoff's overwhelming sound design (which deafens the audience with chickens clucking and machines whirring) are particular creative highlights. They excellently capture the milieu that Ramirez hopes to achieve.

Elements of the script are truly remarkable, and not just limited to the fact that Ramirez introduces us to characters who are only now, very slowly, finding a voice in the American theater. She provides audiences with an unflinching look at the dark side of the American dream, where one wrong move can get you kicked out of the country. Her writing, more often than not, is pure poetry, entirely convincing, and believably human. With a little more polish, To the Bone can be a dramatic game-changer.