Victory Gardens Theater

Ana, a young Latin American working in her sister’s small factory, dreams about going to college to become a writer. Sitting in the bathroom, separated from the rest of the women by a flimsy curtain, she writes feverishly in her journal, complaining about the $67 a week she receives as “a Chicana in the garment industry.” Her determination to make something more of herself is fueled by the fear that she may end up like the other factory women, including her mother and sister–all Mexican immigrants just barely getting by.

Josefina Lopez’s first full-length play, Real Women Have Curves, is based on her own experiences in her sister’s sewing factory in Los Angeles. Not so long ago, Lopez was an undocumented 17-year-old living in fear of being picked up by the INS. Now she’s a relatively successful playwright: Real Women Have Curves is being produced around the country. Plays that deal with the lives of Hispanic women in America are not plentiful–it’s refreshing to see a play about five women, much less five Latin American women. And Lopez’s play has a lot of heart and quite a bit of charm. So much, in fact, that one is tempted to overlook its many flaws, none of which are overcome in this rather uneven Victory Gardens staging.

Estela (Maricela Ochoa, whose charisma does much to salvage this production) is an undocumented factory owner in danger of losing her sewing equipment (and being deported) if she doesn’t finish a large order of dresses in time to make her payments. Her employees–including her mother, Carmen (Martha A. del Rio), and younger sister Ana (Justina Machado)–pull together to finish the order by the end of the week, working in secret with the doors and windows of the sweltering factory closed tight, fearing a raid from immigration authorities.

It’s a good start–a group of women working under pressure from without as well as from one another. Estela’s desperation turns her into an overbearing boss, Carmen resents being treated like an employee by her own daughter, and Ana’s superior attitude toward the others causes a clash or two. But Lopez never fully develops the situation or the characters. Actions never seem to have consequences, resentments are aired and dismissed, and the women are far more involved in swapping funny stories than in confronting problems. Any problems that are confronted are usually solved with a one-liner and a hug. When the dour, abused Pancha (Rosemarie Casas, stepping in for Carole Gutierrez) receives a lecture about women’s rights from Ana, she reacts with a wholly believable jaded contempt. But later she follows Ana’s advice to stand up to her husband, thanking Ana the next day with a kiss and a hug. Not a word is said about how her husband might have reacted–whether he gave her any new bruises, left her, or was just suddenly cowed by her new take-charge attitude.

The pivotal scene comes when the women, fed up with the heat, strip down to their underwear. It’s meant to be a celebration of real women’s bodies–the dresses they’ve been working on are designed for size-five models–but there doesn’t seem to be any real pride here, just a lot of complaining. Much of it is very funny as the women compare cellulite, but under Carmen Roman’s direction this scene seems merely an opportunity for comedy, and when the lovable, portly del Rio disrobes one can’t help feeling she’s being used as a sight gag. Clearly Lopez means us to see that the women accept themselves in all their curvaceous glory, and I applaud her intentions; but her characters haven’t gained any real depth by this point, and they seem to be at the mercy of the playwright’s caprices. Estela, for instance, who all along has insisted that the windows and doors remain closed, does an abrupt about-face and allows them to be opened when the ladies are sitting around in their underwear.

This production is as uneven and well-intentioned as the script, with solid performances from everyone but a curious lack of tension in the direction. For women with a lot of work, these do an awful lot of standing around with idle hands on the cluttered, functional set (design by Bill Bartelt). They do very well with Lopez’s comedy (of the “All right, who farted?” variety) but like the playwright fall short when they reach for more. I sincerely hope that they keep on reaching, however, particularly Lopez. Her skills may need honing, but we can’t afford to lose her point of view.