The Female Heart
nytheatre.com review by Pete Boisvert
June 15, 2007
Linda Faigao-Hall's The FeMale Heart begins in the Smokey Mountains of Manila, a 170 acre garbage mound in which nearly 30,000 people scrape together a meager life. Anghel and his mother Rosario make ends meet by gathering and reselling scrap metal and other useful trash from the refuse that surrounds them. Anghel's sister Adelfa is one of the few teenagers in Smoky Mountain who is able to attend high school.
Upon hearing Adelfa's valedictory speech, Anghel convinces her to continue with her education in college. He tells her he will be able to pay for her tuition by taking a job as a D.I., or dance instructor, at a fancy hotel. In reality, he is actually earning the money for Adelpha's schooling by working as a "macho dancer" or prostitute in Manila's red light district.
When Anghel falls ill as a result of the sex work, Adelfa must place a listing in a catalogue of mail order brides in an attempt to secure the money needed to pay for Anghel's medical care. She strikes up a correspondence with Roger, a real estate broker with anger management issues living in Brooklyn, and arranges to marry him on the condition that he sends $300 a month to Rosario and Anghel to pay for her brother's treatment in a private facility. Initially Adelfa sees the trade as a fair one, but as she is confronted with Roger's anger and violence, the deal she made to save her brother turns sour.
Rona Figueroa is stunning as Adelfa, bringing a fully realized, emotionally centered character to life. Adelfa's attitude toward Roger evolves in the second half of the play as his treatment of her grows harsher, and Figueroa handles the nuances of this change with great skill. Victor Lirio brings charm and tenacity to the role of Anghel.
Initially Bing Magtoto's Rosario comes off a bit flat, but as we watch her correspond with her daughter and care for her son in later scenes, her performance reveals hidden nuances to the character. The role of Roger could easily have been played as a simple monster, but Tim Davis brings a great deal of self-awareness and depth to the part.
Jamie Richards directs the play with a soft hand, allowing the subtleties of the characters to emerge with naturalness and ease. The action moves forward and backward in time, and Richards skillfully handles these transitions; the production holds the audience rapt throughout the densely-packed 70 minute performance.
Maruti Evans's scenic and lighting designs suit the play perfectly. Despite the numerous locations represented in the script, Evans's unit set, centered around Roger's Brooklyn apartment, is remarkably flexible. Once Adelpha moves to Brooklyn to marry Roger, we see glimpses of Rosario and Anghel's lives through a scrim painted with an image of Smokey Mountain, which forms the rear wall of Roger's apartment.
Faigao-Hall's central theme here is self-sacrifice for the salvation of the ones you love. Repeatedly the characters assume each others' burdens, while in the process putting their own hopes and dreams in escrow. This willingness to put others before oneself is seen as a virtue, evidence of pusong babae, the gentle, compassionate female heart. Faigao-Hall never shies away from the difficult moral questions her topic raises, which ultimately is the true strength of the play.