Because it's 2016 and we're enduring a presidential race that features a democratic candidate named Bernie Sanders, it's incumbent upon me to announce that Bernie's Apt. is not a coming-of-age story that describes the burgeoning political consciousness of a young Jewish man from Brooklyn. Rather, it's a moving portrait of urban, immigrant Latina women and girls struggling to keep a family together and earn a living in the United States, brought to you by ACTLab and eSe Teatro.
Full disclosure: This play is a domestic drama about a working-poor, matriarchal foster-care family AND it features a Jehovah's Witness subplot. My two sisters and I were raised to be Jehovah's Witnesses by my single Jewish mother. Though my family had more advantages than the family I saw onstage (we didn't have to manage the complex bureaucracy of immigration and foster-care parentage stuff, and we were white), I kept experiencing vivid emotional flashbacks to my childhood as I was watching the play. Suffice it to say that when Alma Villegas, who plays Bernie, an overworked and exasperated foster-care "mamá" with a complicated past and a kid of her own, shouted at her children to demand their happiness, I got more than a little homesick.
The motivations of the characters are a little messy, mostly because the world they inhabit is messy. Bernie has run into trouble with the law after people at her retail job accuse of her of stealing a dress for her new foster daughter's quinceañera, and despite the financial and emotional toll of fighting those accusations, she's considering fostering another child who has recently been abandoned. Bernie appears to favor her flesh-and-blood daughter more than her foster daughters, no matter how hard they work to keep the house peaceful.
The poverty traps these characters try to dodge include stressing out from overwork, caring for others who no one else will care for to the point of needing care, constantly thinking of starting new businesses but not being able to save enough money to do so, dealing with abuse at the hands of men, relying on the false hope and real comfort of religion, "employee discounts," retaining dignity in the face of a justice system that's not wrong in its judgments but not fair given individual circumstances, balancing the need to abandon the mother ship with the fear of abandoning the people you love, and, of course, trying to overcome past, current, and potential trauma.
The pile-on of problems in Bernie's Apt. doesn't produce a what's-gonna-happen-next dramatic tension. Instead, the structure reveals how a paycheck-to-paycheck extended family absorbs and deflects the indignities that such a family endures in the public sphere. As with all domestic dramas, the more emotionally resonant and complex tensions happen not onstage but within the conscience of audience members. Where should our sympathies lie, for instance, when someone performs a selfish act in order to reward themselves for endless acts of selflessness? To what extent is an act of religious conversion an expression of agency? Should this play have started three-quarters of the way through the first act, even though that would mean losing a lot of character-building stuff up front?
But the play is not a pity party. Watching playwright Rose Cano's complex characters try to overcome their problems with grit, vigor, cunning, and cooperation leads to a lot of humor and fellow-feeling, especially in the case of Maggie (played warmly by Sophie Franco), who starts a psychic hotline called 1-900-YO-BRUJA to make some side money.
But Meme Garcia, whom I've now seen in approximately 100 shows this season, gave the standout performance. Garcia seemed to live in the world of the play that evening, whereas others (with the exception of Villegas) were only acting in it. She's typically cast as a bold, funny, loud person with a quick temper, and her role in Bernie's Apt. is no exception. Word has it that she's playing Ophelia in Seattle Shakespeare's "Wooden O" production of Hamlet this summer, and I'm looking forward to seeing what she brings to that role.