The cost of living in Slumaria


By Scott Harrah

The real estate boom has bypassed those beneath the poverty line, as many people on public assistance continue to live in squalid buildings run by slumlords. In Janeen Stevens’s disturbing new drama “Toughing Slumaria,” a group of impoverished single mothers from different ethnic backgrounds think they’re in luck when they find what appears to be the perfect home for themselves and their children: a clean, vermin-free, well-maintained building with working heat and plumbing that is actually affordable. The four young women—a Latina, an Irishwoman, an Indian immigrant and an African American—soon learn that they share more than the need for public assistance to make ends meet. Their overly friendly, eccentric landlord Harry Flowers (Scott Van Tuyl) is a predator who demands sexual favors from the single women in the building. He proclaims his “love” for all of them by leaving flowers in each of their apartments on a regular basis.

The women form a close emotional bond with each other when they learn that this creep is victimizing them all, but no one is exactly sure how they can stop his unwelcome advances. All four are afraid of saying anything to anyone for fear of losing their apartments. As the story unfolds, the women desperately try to find a way out of the situation to regain their dignity. Paloma (Ali Squitieri), a devout Catholic who has recently separated from her husband, visits her local church and tells the priest (Manny Liyes) during confession about the situation, but the clergyman merely says that she is committing adultery and prays for her to stop sinning. Her feisty, outspoken Irish pal Maggie (played with passion and aplomb by Marie-Rose Pike) is a lapsed Catholic and convinces her scared friend that it’s going to take much more than faith and the Church to stop their landlord.

As the landlord’s sexual advances become unbearable, the four desperately seek outside help, but the various non-profit organizations they turn to are of little use because no one understands why anyone on welfare would complain about living in such a nice building. The play, based on a real-life incident, is a morality tale that uses two Greek choruses to help narrate the story. One chorus is made up of the women who’ve been abused. They appear at various times, with their bodies covered in colored netting, as they interject horrifying tales of the landlord’s sex crimes into certain scenes. The second chorus is comprised of narrators that comment on the action or environment in other scenes. Both seem a bit melodramatic and out of place at times because the narrative is compelling enough to stand on its own, and doesn’t need to be “explained” to the audience.

The story is fast-paced, heartbreaking and all too real, and there are many incandescent performances from this remarkable, ensemble cast. Two attorneys, Karen Styles (played brilliantly by Barbara Miluski) and Rick Smith (Lane Wray), offer the four women a sense of hope by agreeing to take on their case pro bono and sue the landlord. Jahnavi Rennison as the Anglo-Indian immigrant Rajeela, and Chudney Sykes as the levelheaded Doris, are both marvelous, and Ali Squitieri as the naive and timid Paloma is simply exquisite.

Unfortunately, some of the smaller supporting roles—specifically officials at various charitable and government agencies—are overdone and stereotypical. (Their characters sport goofy hairstyles and speak in grating accents, as if they’re performing in some silly “Saturday Night Live” skit.) Non-profit executives and civil servants are caricatured as cold and heartless, and there is too much “hamming it up” and flippant dialogue in these particular scenes, many of which simply aren’t funny and seem inappropriate in a play with such a serious, dark theme. With some tighter direction, these scenes could have been more powerful. Were they played with subtlety, they might truly show how government bureaucracies trivialize or ignore the problems of poverty-stricken women.

“Toughing Slumaria” is a full-length, two-act drama with one intermission, but this sparse production doesn’t give the actors much of a set to work with other than some hanging colored canopies that represent scenery, a few tables, and a makeshift courtroom for one of the final scenes. Regardless, the cast still manages to bring the story to resonant life. The play is an ambitious, poignant piece of theater that has much to say about the helplessness of the needy and the many obstacles low-income women have to overcome to avoid being victimized. Playwright Janeen Stevens sheds thought-provoking light on the moral dilemmas poor women face when they are forced to live on little money and food and try to make a decent home for their families in violent, dilapidated urban slums.