The characters in “The Women of Padilla” are eight passive protagonists — the wives of eight brothers who went to war.
Some of the men have died already, and more will die in the course of the play. When a soldier dies, a pigeon appears, bearing a piece of paper with the man’s name.
It’s an abstract piece, artfully staged but not, I felt, particularly engaging. A sense of dread hangs over the characters, as they wait and worry, dreading the bad news that may possibly come. They’re not blood relatives, but are thrown together by fate; they try “to fill in the blank spaces with each other,” as one character eloquently puts it.
We never learn much about the war, or their husbands, or their jobs, or how they got to this point in their lives.
The setting is defined, in the program, as “Mexico, in a time with some sense of the past.” (Padilla is the family name, not the town.) The women are given brief descriptions in the program (“Mari, the one who quietly leads,” “Marta, the one with faith,” “Fidela, the one who’s taciturn” and so on).
Certainly, some of the characters are intriguing. Carmen (“the one who drinks,” played by Jeanine Serralles) adds some much needed irreverence to the proceedings. Cristina (“the one who’s young,” played by Elizabeth Ramos) is only 16, as is her husband.
Lucha (“the one with poetry,” played by Helen Cespedes) has an imposing air of mystery. Blanca (“the one on the outside,” played by Karina Arroyave) is the outcast, socially awkward and always asking the others for money.
But ultimately, in this relatively short play (just 90 minutes), writer Tony Meneses never really develops their characters beyond their one-line descriptions — or, for that matter, gives them much to do. It’s as if everything is in a state of suspended animation until the war is over.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll constructs the scenes with painterly precision. The scenic design, by Arnulfo Maldonado, is simple but elegant — the main set is a uncluttered home, a bit drab except for bold splashes of color in the tablecloths (and in the women’s costumes, designed by Oana Botez). The puppet design (by James Ortiz) and puppet direction (by Will Gallacher) enables the pigeons of death to have an appropriately dramatic presence.
Yet, overall, I found “The Women of Padilla” to be slight and sketchy. In this case, I am definitely “the one who wanted more.”
“The Women of Padilla” is at Two River Theater in Red Bank through April 30; visit tworivertheater.org.