In Sharyn Rothstein's A Good Farmer, a widowed farm owner named Bonnie (Chelsea Silverman) befriends a bright, young Mexican immigrant, Carla (Jacqueline Duprey), who has been working illegally on her farm for seven years. The play focuses on Bonnie's unenviable predicament, one that many farmers face with every major crop season: the need to hire cheap labor to farm the land, and the knowledge that no legal citizen would work for such low wages. Like most farmers in the area, Bonnie employs about a dozen illegal immigrants, gives them coffee in the morning, and carpools their kids to school, but pays them poorly and works them to the bone. Rothstein spends most of the play trying to humanize Bonnie, perhaps in an attempt to make her a protagonist in our eyes. But it doesn't feel right. It is hard to sympathize with a woman who knowingly exploits her workers, never gives them a day off, and then wonders which she fears more: seeing her fellow PTA moms captured, interrogated, and deported by Immigrations and Custom Enforcement or losing her crops if there is no one around to harvest them.
Most of Act 2 takes place in a flashback, where we meet Bonnie's good-humored but dying husband, David (Gerald McCullouch), and learn the hard luck details of Bonnie's life that have led her to reluctantly hire illegal workers. But the play spends too much time on this subject while a truly sympathetic character like Carla falls into the background, as does the overall issue of illegal immigration.
The playbill features an interview with Rothstein, where she says, "I wanted to write a play with a very smart, very strong woman at its center." She accomplished as much through Carla. She is intelligent, saucy, determined, and smarter than Bonnie, proving in many instances that she knows the world much better than those who are running it.
We are told that Bonnie and Carla are supposed to be friends, "best friends," according to the play's blurb, but that seems unlikely given the master/servant dynamic of their relationship. Duprey conveys that uncertainty in her acting; when she speaks to Bonnie, her tone is always cordial but never sincere. Her laughter is polite, almost strategic because she can see the way it makes Bonnie think that she might not be such a slave driver after all. When the two fight, Duprey's voice is strong and direct. She never loses her temper but often clenches her jaw as if she is biting her tongue.
There is a wonderfully telling scene where Bonnie first offers Carla the job of being a caregiver for her terminally ill husband, adding, only when pressed, that the job pays nothing and offers only food and lodging. When Carla balks at the offer, Bonnie snaps back, saying that she is being greedy and selfish to request anything in her position and that she should take what she can get and be grateful for it. A friendship laid on this foundation can only be a rocky one at best.
So who is the true villain in all of the illegal immigration controversy? Is it the government, which says you must be a legal citizen to work in this country? Is it Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, which rounds up immigrants who have been here for several years to send them back to the place they fled from? Or is it the farm and factory owners like Bonnie who knowingly hire illegal immigrants because they know they can work them harder and pay them less than someone with workers' rights?
A Good Farmer touches upon, but never fully explores any of these questions.