a Good Farmer
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 25, 2007
Despite being about the hot-button political issue of illegal immigration, Sharyn Rothstein's a Good Farmer tries very hard not to wear its politics on its sleeve, to be about a community and its people who happen to be going through some trying times, rather than solely about issues—but doesn't entirely succeed. It's not that Rothstein is polemical about it; she isn't trying to make us think any one way about the problem, nor, certainly, proposing a solution. But despite creating characters with complex emotional lives, she too often lets them slip into black-and-white thinking about this one issue, and into making the immigration issue always a part—and often a stereotypical part—of the conversation when the one immigrant character—a Mexican farm worker—is on stage.
The story takes place far from the "front lines" of illegal immigration—not in a big city, or in the Southwestern border states, but in a tiny farming community in upstate New York, outside of Buffalo, beautifully conjured by a giant photographic backdrop of a rural landscape, illuminated to show changing light at different times of day. And the portrait of this community is painted primarily through its women. There's Bonnie, a young widow and single mother who's still trying to run the cabbage and dairy farm she inherited from her husband on a shoestring—she can barely afford the livestock and the work crew she does have, all of whom are illegals. Carla, one of those workers, has worked for Bonnie for seven years (along with her never-seen husband), first as a housekeeper while Bonnie's husband was dying and Carla herself was pregnant, then on the farm. Bonnie seems to consider Carla her best friend, yet is still clearly her employer—when pressed, she admits Carla hasn't had a day off since the previous spring. Rosemary, the local PTA "CEO" (her phrase), is a busybody stay-at-home mother, the wife of the local district attorney, and wants all the town's mothers to invest as much time and energy as she does in parenting. Lu runs the local health clinic, treating everyone from pregnant women to cancer patients, and doing her best not to ask about immigration status. Everyone's adopted a kind of "don't-ask, don't-tell" policy about the immigrant farm workers; they're definitely part of the community—or at least Rosemary harps on Carla to do her duty by the PTA as much as she does on Bonnie—but also definitely set apart by their background, their language, their class status, and the fact that the ICE (formerly the INS) is cracking down on farms in the area.
So when Bonnie has a conflict with Gabe, a local man who's out of work and wants her to give him a job, it's not surprising that the ICE shortly thereafter turns up at Bonnie's farm, a moment of reckoning for Bonnie, and for Carla. Each has a chance to sell out the other to save herself—and the stakes are very high. If Bonnie admits she knew Carla was illegal, she'll lose her farm; if Carla doesn't admit Bonnie knew, she'll not only be deported (and likely separated from her kids, who are American citizens) but also face felony charges.
The power of the play is in its small, rich details that show the bonds and the fractures in the community: Bonnie and Carla laying their heads on growing cabbages to determine if they're ready to be picked; single father Gabe showing up to the PTA bake sale with lasagna instead of cupcakes, to Rosemary's outright horror; Carla and her family sleeping in their car in the middle of the winter fields, in hopes of dodging the ICE for just a little bit longer; Bonnie's quick, efficient chopping of cabbage as she prepares dinner for her son; the constant tension between Rosemary, the "good mother," and the other women, who work as well as parent. There's also enormous power in Jacqueline Duprey's performance as Carla; her strength, her fear, and the sheer amount of willpower it's taken to get her this far shine through every line she speaks. But whenever the focus of the play shifts toward the immigration question, Rothstein too often gives in to a kind of overt emotional exposition that feels both forced and unnecessary; the play would make the same points, and more strongly, without the explanations.
For one example: "Your people are the laziest folks I've ever met.... How you make good workers is really beyond me," Rosemary says to Carla, when Carla is unable to help at an after-school activity because she's got to get back to work. Now, Rosemary is of course prone to blurting out inappropriate responses—but given that Rosemary and Carla have known each other for seven years, and that no other parents, white or Mexican, have shown up to help Rosemary, the leap to an outright racist generalization feels wrong here. This kind of treatment also shows up in an extended flashback (Act 2) to the period surrounding the death of Bonnie's husband, when she first hired the very pregnant Carla—and tried to hire her for room and board only, with no salary.
The flashback itself feels a little out of place—although it's lovely to see the relationship between Bonnie and David, and how his death has affected her, this long section interrupts the main action of the play and lets the built-up tension of Act 1 drain away. The richer emotional picture of Bonnie in this act also seems to challenge Chelsea Silverman, whose Bonnie is normally so stoic as to verge on emotionless rather than contained.
Act 3, set in the immigration detention center, and staged by director Matthew Arbour as a physically as well as structurally interlocking series of duets (Bonnie and Carla, Carla and her lawyer, Bonnie and an ICE agent), is stylistically sharply distinct from Act 1, but narratively its continuation, and the long interruption lessens its impact. The play's final moment, though, is one of its strongest—a scene between Bonnie and Carla where Carla reveals, just for a moment, a shade of relief at being able to lay down the burdens she's been carrying; the worst has already happened, and she will continue to survive. It's that emotional, individual reaction, as opposed to the political generalities, that a Good Farmer too often lacks.