Monday, October 08, 2007

PLAY: "a Good Farmer"

Photo/Rick Berubé

From the plain cabbages littering the floor of the Bank Street theater to the widescreen image of an empty road to the two men in the corner plunking light underscores on the piano and guitar, you wouldn't expect a Good Farmer to be a serious look at immigration. But after a bumpy opening, Sharyn Rothstein's new play proves to be as intelligently open as her last (Neglect): it doesn't judge her desperate and misguided townsfolk, it simply presents them as they are.

Why shouldn't Gabe (Borden Hallowes) resent illegal immigrant Carla (Jacqueline Duprey), for taking jobs he believes are entitled to him as an American? Why shouldn't Rosemary (Elizabeth Bunnell) call Mexicans lazy, given that when it comes to doing work in her world (she's "CEO" of the PTA), they're too busy "working" elsewhere? And why shouldn't Bonnie (Chelsea Silverman) employ the only people willing to work for her, especially when it's the only way for her to save her farm and raise her child, given the cancerous death of her husband, David (Gerald McCullouch)? Underlying goodness, if it truly exists, is of no use if stifled by unconscious bigotry, and good intentions are so easily blinded by misdirected anger.

It takes Rothstein a little while to lay it all out, however, and the first act is sloppily one-sided (pro-immigration). For the first hour, the right-wingers of the show (Rosemary and Gabe) are exaggeratedly mean or comic, and the strong, working mothers (Bonnie and Carla) can do no wrong. (The one missing archetype is the bad farmer, but that's another play.) But after a menacing confrontation in a cornfield between Gabe and Carla ("No such thing as a good person. There's lucky and not lucky and that's all there is."), the play makes it a lot harder to defend any one person.

The second act opens, seven years earlier, with Carla unable to speak good English, and Bonnie doesn't want to hire her. As an audience, we already know that these seeds will turn out ripe, but it's easy to see why so many people, trapped in the immediate now, are afraid to trust. Nobody becomes friends overnight, but given time, even the most disparate of people can come together if their hearts are in the right place. As Carla points out to the immigration officer (and Jacqueline Duprey's sincere indignation is what sells the heart of this play): "We're just like you. With less choices."

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