Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
The Women of Padilla
Unspooling in a series of short, elliptical scenes, The Women of Padilla chronicles the alternately fretful and resilient existence of eight women whose husbandsall brothersare off fighting in an unnamed conflict. Although the play takes place in an unnamed Latin American country (Padilla is their surname, not a place), the dialogue suggests that war has overtaken the worldmen from Portugal to Norway are on the distant front lines, while women just like those before us exist in limbo. The women's lives are defined by anxious waiting; they each hope today won't be the day they learn of their husband's death.
Each woman is characterized by a particular trait, which not only illustrates their individual personalities but illuminates their modes of coping. The strong-willed Mari (Jacqueline Correa, in a beautifully nuanced performance) is the default leader, although she privately questions her resolve. Drinking has become a crutch for the spirited Carmen (the brilliant Jeanine Serralles), who shields herself from pain with a sharp tongue and a constant stupor. Marta has devoted herself to prayer, and Keren Lugo suggests her steadfast faith without resorting to zealotry. The enigmatic Lucha (Helen Cespedes, the production's real discovery) takes solace in poetry after she is widowed, and the frustration the other women find in her artistic expression, and what they fear it might precipitate, drives much of the brief, intermissionless play.
Meneses wears his influences on his sleeve. The poetic text is reminiscent of Lorca, and the claustrophobic confinement (Arnulfo Maldonado supplies the perfectly lived-in set that serves to represent all of their homes) suggests a debt to The House of Bernarda Alba. Meneses also owes a debt to Latin American magical realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isabel Allende. Fancifully unbelievable elements dot the play, particularly the use of carrier pigeons to deliver the news of battlefield deaths. Despite obvious analogues, though, Meneses cultivates a wholly original voice, and the more stylized elements he deploys always feel in perfect service to his story.
Neither the play nor the production (directed by Ken Rus Schmoll) are perfect. Languid scene changes, likely meant to be atmospheric, merely impede flow. And the play's fleetness doesn't allow for a full excavation of each of the eight women. I would have liked to learn more about Blanca, the outcast of the group, whom Karina Arroyave brings to vivid life in just two brief scenes. The remaining three wiveswell-played by Daniella de Jesus, Paloma Guzman, and Elizabeth Ramosalso tend to get short shrift in favor of the drama's flashier characters.
But even with reservations, The Women of Padilla is an astounding achievement for a young playwright on the brink of a major career. By the time the stage lights dimmed on the stunning denouement (which I won't reveal herebut have tissues ready), I felt I had been fully integrated within a fascinating, frustrating and familiar world. Meneses may stop short of answering the eternal question of why wars persist, but he shows a keen understanding of how people withstand its devastation.
The Women of Padilla continues through Sunday, April 30, 2017, at Two River Theater's Rechnitz Theater, 90 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ. Tickets ($20-70) can be purchased online at www.tworivertheater.org or by calling 732-345-1400.