A section of the border wall erected between Mexico and the United States peaks over a lower-middle class home that scenic designer and Strawshop founding artistic director Greg Carter has decked out with tons of Mexican-American signifiers from the 1960s. There's framed photos of Jesus and JFK, a television with tons of nobs, a cross, brown and orange furniture, and lamps with plastic over the shades to preserve them against the dust. Everything looks pretty typical, except for the twin mattress lying in the center of the living room. That's Ceci's bed.
Ceci has brain damage from a car accident she suffered on her quinceañera. All the family's dark secrets, including the reason why she's almost a vegetable, lie trapped in her non-verbal mind.
The action really gets going when the matriarch of a family, Rosa (played by Carolyn Marie Monroe), invites a maid named Lydia from Jalisco to help out around their El Paso, Texas home. She makes coffee and cleans the house, but mostly she serves as Ceci's primary caregiver. As Lydia spends more time with her charge, she begins to act as Ceci's interpreter, translating her grunts and groans for the family. In several moments throughout the play, though, Ceci acts as her own interpreter, magically popping up out of her rictus and slobbering state to unleash lyrical streams of expository information.
Lydia ends up starting as many fires as she puts out, and every character struggles to conceal a bomb of secrets in their chests in order to avoid setting off an explosion of social consequences: deportation, homophobic shunning and bashing, and generally revealing oneself as a vulnerable person who needs help in the world. The family nearly screams and beats and blows itself up as everyone slowly discovers the tangled (and incestuous!) roots of their dysfunction.
You know a performance is good if people laugh and cry at weird times. During the opening night performance I attended, people were laughing and crying at weird times.
Lots of credit due to playwright Octavio Solis's gorgeous language and complex characterization. Every sentence from Ceci is poetry. To pick a random example, here's the way she talks about her mother: "Anglo words falling out of your mouth like lazy moths."
But the incredible cast, under the direction of Sheila Daniels, deserves just as much credit. All of the characters are fucked up, and Solis embeds tons of drama in the play's very sentences, so there's a real temptation to overact. But no member of the ensemble ever confused intensity for melodrama or lyricism for cheese. The stage combat (!) was executed realistically, and the whole thing felt lived in the worst way.
Rafael Molina so convincingly portrayed Rene, the self-hating, violently homophobic, wildman older brother, that I was constantly vacillating between pure disdain for his personality, pure pity for his situation, and pure wonder at the resilience of the women who endure his tirades with grace or else send their own tirades hurdling back toward him.
New Century Theatre founding member and veteran actor Ray Gonzalez showed exceptional control as the aggressive but also cowardly father, Claudio. He commanded the stage even though he spent a large part of the show smoldering quietly in a chair, literally blocking out all of his family's troubles with headphones. But when he erupted into a violent and uncontainable mess, he was all you could see.
I've seen Yadira Duarte play small roles in a few local shows this year and last year (Medea, and Bring Down the House), but her nuanced, warm performance of Lydia shows she's got the skills to take on much bigger roles in the future.
Sofía Raquel Sánchez turned in a pretty sophisticated physical performance, displaying a remarkable ability to transform herself at the drop of a hat from a strained, crumpled, non-ambulatory person into an angelic earth goddess alive with poetic fire. But Andrew Pryor-Ramírez's stint as Misha, the family's diminutive golden boy and aspiring poet, was my favorite performance of the night. But maybe I'm biased. He was one of the few bright spots of humor, hope, and honesty in a dark, dusty, repressed world where truth and understanding are scarce.
But really the connection between these actors stood out more than any individual performance. Like the family, their flaws and strengths somehow fit together to form a functional group of dysfunctional people. They could have produced this thing in a tin can and they still would have had the audience crying weird tears. Which is kind of wild, considering that Sánchez is a junior at Cornish, Pryor-Ramírez is a sophomore, and Duarte graduated from the same program two years ago. The youths!
Anyway, it was 100 percent good. Highly recommend. Pay the money to see it.