New play ‘Balikbayan Box’ tells a Filipino immigration love story

Jeffrey Lo’s play at TheatreFirst presents a modern arranged marriage, where love grows during the quest for a green card.

Lynie Abadilla and Jed Parsario star in Jeffrey Lo’s new play Balikbayan Box at TheatreFirst. Courtesy: TheatreFirst

In Balikbayan Box, Joseph, a successful but somber Filipino-American chef (Jed Parsario) living in Milpitas, California, enters into an arranged marriage with Bethany (Lynie Abadilla), an exuberant Filipina teacher immigrating to America. Their families agree that Bethany will find an American job and send needed money home to her family; Joseph’s Filipino family gets paid a modern variation of a dowery in exchange.

Balikbayan Box, TheatreFirst, 1301 Shattuck Ave., through June 12

The duo must remain living together in a three-year semblance of marriage to sanction Bethany’s immigration status. They need to start the application process within the first 90 days of Bethany’s arrival.

We first meet the two at SFO, where Bethany is lugging a balikbayan box — the large case Filipinos use to send or carry gifts for family overseas. We follow the pair at Joseph’s apartment during their awkward early days of living together. But the pair is distinctly not a pair. Instead, they are going through the studied process of building a counterfeit joint background with all the details of where they fictitiously met and fell in love. And at the same time, they are slowly and hesitantly building an actual and meaningful relationship.

Lynie Abadilla as Bethany. Courtesy: TheatreFirst

The complex relationship that develops between Joseph and Bethany is the crux of this multifaceted, intimate and rather sophisticated story. As Joseph and Bethany grow to understand and appreciate each other, the audience cares about them and their future. I was happily surprised by the nuances and unexpected revelations that playwright Jeffrey Lo gradually wove into the play.

It is infrequent that a contemporary play elucidates the concept of personal duty to family. Yet, as an immigrant, Bethany feels a strong moral duty to her relations back home. But what about your duty to yourself, retorts the Americanized Joseph. This friction reverberates throughout the one-act, 95-minute production.

Michelle Talagarow’s able direction is supplemented by effective set and sound designs. With sensitive and expressive performances by the two excellent actors, Jed Parsario and Lynie Abadilla, Balikbayan Box is a gem.

Jed Parsario as Joseph. Courtesy: TheatreFirst

Jeffrey Lo’s plays are enjoying an unusual ubiquity these days. Because of lockdown delays, four of his plays are being offered this season in the Bay Area. If Balikbayan Box is any indication, the other three should be well-worth seeing.

Balikbayan Box plays through June 12 at the newly renovated, comfortable Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., in Berkeley, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are available on a sliding scale between $5 and $25. Proof of vaccination and masks are required. For more information, visit the theater website.

Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.