Smoke billows up through lofty ridges of puckered mauve fabric in which garbage nestles in a phantasmagoric rendering of Smokey Mountain, a massive dump on the outskirts of Manila that provided sustenance of sorts to 20,000 Filipino scavengers. At ground level, in complementary colors, are the study and bedroom of a real estate broker's upscale Park Slope apartment. This inventive set by Dan Kuchar depicts the twin poles of Linda Faigao-Hall's The Female Heart, an ambitious new play that follows Adelfa (played with aplomb by Rona Figueroa) in her journey from scavenger to Starbucks employee to college grad to mail-order bride.
While the political message is hammered home where a light tapping would have done the trick, the playwright manages to seed enough compelling details in Adelfa's story to sustain our attention. Director Jamie Roberts's sure-footed blocking plus the work of her talented design team help smooth the play's leaps through time and space.
We learn about Smokey Mountain, which was demolished in 1993 to make way for a never-built housing development, through the clunky device of spot news reporting by an Australian journalist, wittily portrayed by Sean Sutherland, who interviews Adelfa's brother Anghel (Victor Lirio) at the dump in 1992 in the play's opening scene and returns to the site nine years later in the final scene.
In between those expository bookends, Faigao-Hall vividly dramatizes the mercilessness of poverty, the forces that drive immigration, the miscues and incongruities between Filipino and U.S. culture, and how profoundly important the money sent by migrant relatives is for families back home. What she doesn't do as effectively, alas, is create convincing, multidimensional characters, despite the laudable efforts of the cast.
The play's title comes from the Tagalog phrase for a man or woman with a tender heart. Adelfa and her brother share that quality. Through an extended flashback, we learn that Anghel secretly took a job as a dancer in a male sex club to finance his family's escape from Smokey and pay his sister's way through college. But when Anghel falls seriously ill, it is Adelfa's turn to sacrifice in order to pay for his medical care. Adelfa and her mother decide that marriage to a rich American his surname, they happily note, is Golden�is the best choice among unappealing options.
The Female Heart picks up momentum even as the plot grows less plausible when the main action shifts to Brooklyn. Roger Golden (Tim Davis), a good-looking businessman in his 30s, turns out to be controlling and prone to angry eruptions, but penitent and self-reflective at other moments. Adelfa not only accepts her plight, negotiating larger and larger sums of money from Golden as the relationship becomes more confining and brutal, but appears to fall in love with him.
By play's end, things have come full circle. As his sister's letters and phone calls dry up, Anghel recalls the family's final day at the dump, when the three danced with hopeful glee, as the happiest day of his life. "My dear Adelfa, don't send any more things," he writes. "They're just things, Adelfa. Stuff. And it always comes down to this. Someday they'll be garbage."