No Prince Charming — or any other man, for that matter — appears onstage in the revival of “Real Women Have Curves” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Nevertheless Josefina López’s crowd-pleasing play is a Cinderella story, with a touchingly pure faith in the power of a makeover.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore makeovers. At the “Real Women” curtain call, when the five East L.A. sweatshop seamstresses, each suffering from body-image issues as well as poverty, social invisibility and fear of being deported, busted out glam dresses and owned their fabulousness, I had to wipe away tears. Some part of me will never hear enough that women who don’t conform to our restrictive standards can still be beautiful.
López’s semi-autobiographical “Real Women,” about an ambitious young woman working in a sweatshop, was first performed in 1990. It proved a hit, and the playwright adapted it into the 2002 film starring then-newcomer America Ferrera. For the current stage revival, directed by Pasadena Playhouse associate artistic director Seema Sueko, López has updated the time frame to the present (August 2015, instead of 1987) and unobtrusively incorporated cellphones.
“Real Women” was revolutionary for its time and still, decades later, feels subversive: It puts women center stage, and not rich, glamorous women. The audience is asked not merely to care about these women’s struggle to produce evening gowns on a tight deadline but to see their real bodies, in an implausible, irresistible scene in which the L.A. heat compels them to strip down to their underwear and compare their physiques in a joyful orgy of acceptance.
That “Real Women” fits so seamlessly in a contemporary setting is, at some level, disappointing: Shouldn’t we have advanced a little, after all this time? Shouldn’t the sweltering, dingy, below-street-level factory (by David F. Weiner) with its broken windowpanes and door triple-locked against raids by la migra (immigration police) feel medieval by now? Should the passing engines and headlights of the police van (evoked by lighting designer Josh Epstein and sound designer Cricket S. Myers) still be so terrifying?
But as America remains deeply divided on the subject of immigration, the plight of immigrant laborers is dishearteningly relevant. And despite the occasional media rallying cry, heavier bodies are still treated with contempt in our culture.
Ultimately the superficial, fairy-tale optimism of “Real Women” is what dates it. However we’d like to, we no longer believe that a bolt of satin and a pep talk can fix our problems.
Of course, the play is a comedy, intended less to preach than to entertain. The five women are warmly drawn, with humorous foibles, and the Playhouse cast brings them vividly to life.
Our protagonist, Ana Garcia (Santana Dempsey), is a recent high school graduate full of feminist fervor, sass and writerly ambition. She can’t afford college, so she has been persuaded to help out at the garment factory owned by her older sister, Estela (Cristina Frias). Their gossipy mother, Carmen (Blanca Araceli), also works there, along with the stolid Pancha (Ingrid Oliu) and the cheerful Rosali (Diana DeLaCruz).
The frazzled Estela, deeply in debt and behind schedule, doesn’t have a green card. The only way the women can stave off disaster is to deliver an impossible order in a week — a task that might overwhelm even people who weren’t preoccupied by their own and one another’s body weights.
These five can barely sew a seam without stopping to discuss the topic — and no wonder. Without forsaking its light tone, the play makes the case that weight is not simply a cosmetic but a sociopolitical issue, at the heart of the innumerable problems women face — especially those struggling to survive in a foreign culture.
Pancha’s heaviness is a reaction to abuse and infertility. Carmen’s is a vain attempt to insulate herself against chronic pregnancy. Even so, Carmen nags carefree Ana about losing 10 pounds. (Although Dempsey is well cast in terms of zest and charm, she is too slim for the role.) Estela considers herself a fat, hopeless old maid, while Rosali diets herself into a swoon to reach size zero.
Having persuaded us of the seriousness of these problems, the play proposes a pretty solution: a line of colorful plus-sized dresses.
At the unveiling, I was more excited than anybody: I’d fallen hard for these funny, flawed, tough women, and I loved watching them preen and vogue in their finery. They had so much moxie.
I didn’t ask myself until later whether moxie could actually turn anything around. On the other hand, as it was 25 years ago, moxie is probably a good place to start.
‘Real Women Have Curves’
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 4.
Info: (626) 356-7529, PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours