nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 17, 2008
It's so easy, still, here in the United States, to imagine that a repressive government like the one depicted in Ariel Dorfman's Widows is purely theoretical: that we'd never live to see all the men in our towns rounded up and jailed for years, or a military force put in charge of restoring order after years of war had ravaged our country.
Dorfman reminds us that what seems unthinkable actually can happen, and does happen; that the temptations of power and greed and stability and even ideals that we talk ourselves into make what I've just described easy to slip into and to pretend to justify. Widows renders the reality that Dorfman has seen first-hand palpable and visceral for American audiences who, probably, have not. Reverie Productions does theatre-goers a great service in bringing this 20-year-old play to the New York stage for the first time.
Widows takes place in a small farming village—the characters' names and Dorfman's Chilean background suggest it could be in Latin America, but in fact the original version of the play was set in Greece; Hal Brooks's inspiration to use a truly multi-cultural ensemble here reinforces the idea that this story could be unfolding anywhere. The men have been gone from this place for many years, arrested because of their politics or other proclivities. Except for the soldiers who have come to manage it, this area is devoid of adult men; Alexis, the teenage son of one of the women here, is the only male resident. Sofia, matriarch of the Fuentes family, waits by the river every day and every night for the men of her family to return. (She has lost a father, a husband, and two sons to the authorities.)
One day, a man does return—washed up on the banks of the river, dead and unidentifiable. A second quickly turns up, and with his arrival Sofia takes action. This man, she says, is her husband. Though there's no way to tell, because the body has been so badly abused by the elements, she remains steadfast; her need for closure is unquenchable. Soon the other "widows" of the village join her: this man, each says, is her husband or brother or father or son. "Thirty-six widows!" says the exasperated captain in charge of the town. "Widows, mothers, aunts, grandmas—the only woman in the whole miserable fucking valley who isn't demanding that corpse is the one woman we gave it to!"
Dorfman divides the play between the women, anguished and ready to explode, and the soldiers, each of whom is able to come up with a good reason for carrying out orders that he says he finds reprehensible. The climax of the play shows us the inevitable confrontation between two sets of players pushed too far; it is brutally hard to watch and unrelenting in its potency.
Reverie has staged the play in one of the smaller spaces at 59E59, and it is a tight fit: my one gripe with the production is that Wilson Chin's two-level set, which physicalizes the divisions in the play, eats up too much of the available room, making it difficult for the audience to see everything or even to sit comfortably (this may be the intention, of course). Colin D. Young's lighting and Kimberly Glennon's costumes are excellent.
Brooks's direction is fluid and tight, especially in the second act, which has an inexorable pace that just never lets up. It is particularly effective in some of the big group scenes, when emotion is telegraphed via what is very nearly a tableau—for example, there's a moment when all the women silently work together to quickly gather up some spilled grain that signals eloquently what they're feeling, collectively and separately.
The cast of 18 (!) includes Reverie veterans like Sarah Nina Hayon, Audrey Lynn Weston, and Mark Alhadeff; it is anchored by the formidable Ching as Sofia, who forcefully and movingly conveys the bitterness, the despair, the loss, and the defiance of her remarkable character.
Widows is not easy to sit through; it's not meant to be. Dorfman and the folks at Reverie want this, I think, to be a call to action. Complacency—taking ideas like justice and mercy for granted—is dangerous. It's useful—essential!—to be shaken up a bit by as powerfully disturbing a drama as this one.