MANILA — New York-based Linda Faigao-Hall’s “The Female Heart” finally makes it debut in the Philippines nearly 10 years after it was staged in New York in 2007 in an affecting production by the University of the Philippines Playwrights’ Theater.
With a big chunk of the play translated into Filipino by Jem Javier, “The Female Heart,” which was originally written for foreign audiences, gains greater depth and resonance among locals, who understand the Filipino sense of family and the sacrifices they are willing to endure for their loved ones. It is also an eye-opener for well-off millennials who were too young to remember Smokey Mountain, which became at one point the global face of Third World poverty.
Although much of Faigao-Hall’s works deal with Filipino-American concerns like “identity, longing and transculturation,” Javier and director Banaue Miclat-Janssen focused more on the hopes and struggles of poor Filipinos which forced lead character Adelfa to become a mail-order bride in Brooklyn.
The play opens in Smokey Mountain with Adelfa practicing her high school valedictory address, while her older brother Anghel sifts through the trash. Proud of her achievement, Anghel and their mother decide that Adelfa should go to college and pursue her dreams of becoming a teacher. Besides as a high school graduate, she can’t even fulfill her immediate goal of working as a salesgirl at SM.
Anghel tells her that he has found work as a dance instructor. Eventually, however, she discovers that her brother is really a macho dancer at a gay bar. Worse, he becomes sick, forcing Adelfa to quit college and become a mail-order bride to pay for Anghel’s medicines.
Adelfa’s problems only gets worse since her husband, Roger, has anger management issues, not to mention a sadistic streak.
The melodramatic story is familiar to anyone who has watched a Pinoy soap opera or the countless of films about poverty in the country. But Miclat-Janssen never allows the play to sink to maudlin levels, giving the characters a sense of dignity amid their despair, without romanticizing their plight or exploiting their condition.
There were directorial touches that added to the theatrical experience. The scene changes were swift, particularly when the garbage of Smokey Mountain suddenly materialized on stage. Adelfa’s departure to the US was also cleverly blocked, while the violent scenes were cold and blunt.
There is also a remarkable lack of judgment with its balanced portrayal of the various characters. Even Roger isn’t just a sadistic monster. As played by American actor Mark McKeown, Roger is presented more as a troubled man that also needs if not our sympathy then at least our understanding.
Sheryll Ceasico also offers a complex portrayal of the mother Rosario, who allows her son to go into the sex trade and encourages her daughter to marry an American she hasn’t met. Yet beneath her personal ambitions and pragmatic behavior, one also can’t dismiss her totally as just evil.
But “The Female Heart” is really about the relationship between Adelfa and Anghel and Chase Salazar and Al Gatmaitan gave genuinely heartbreaking performances.
When Adelfa finds out the fate of her family and lets out a silent scream as letters theatrically rained down the stage, it’s hard not to be affected.
Yet while audiences are bound to tear up, “The Female Heart” refuses to wallow in sadness and self-pity. It still ends in hope fueled by a love of family that is recognizably Filipino.
"The Female Heart" will have its last two performances on July 10, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, Palma Hall, UP Diliman,