Theater Review: El Nogalar at Fountain Theater

All happy orchard-growing families may be alike . . . and each unhappy orchard-growing family may truly be unhappy in its own way.  But in ‘El Nogalar’ (The Pecan Orchard), playwright Tanya Saracho’s moving adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ (which opened January 28 at The Fountain Theater) we see that, even if their crops are different  (as well as the continents on which they grow them, and the languages in which they speak, tease and bless each other) their longings for place, for memory and for permanence amidst a rapidly changing world are strikingly the same.

While the background story of Chekhov’s pre-absurdist comedy and Saracho’s more linear and (to me) more dramatic tale are similar – an expatriate family returning home against a tapestry of cultural and economic upheaval – Saracho entrusts her telling to allow her characters (and the audience along with them) to have a much more direct experience of what it is like to have an uneasy awareness of your world slipping away and endangered by an encroaching violence over which concepts and institutions like family, custom and the bonds of culture have no sway.

One of the most powerful aspects of Chekov’s play is the building sense of doom that comes from the world outside the set, the scene, the stage – and even the theater. Saracho (with the excellent interpretive work of Director Laurie Woolery and dramaturge Luis Alfaro) has done nothing less than a terrific job of employing the same device.  The palpable tension, the tightening noose of world on the brink of a descent into darkness, the now oppressive strains of a once comforting lullaby slipping out of time and out of key are all implied and take place beyond the consciousness and control of the people we are watching.  This isn’t easily accomplished. There is a writer’s tendency to want to make sure that a point is made that needs to be resisted. For a younger writer there can also be the allure of demonstrating the mastery of skills – even if their employment might detract from the perceived maturity of the writing. Saracho wields her artistic blade like an old master and trusts both her writing and the audiences intelligence to connect somewhere within that dreamland that is the suspension of disbelief – and her play is so much the better for it.

The returning members of the Galvan family (Yetta Gottesman as the mother Maite, and Diana Romo as her youngest daughter Anita) had been living in the United States for 15 years until Maite’s foreign romantic interest robbed them of their money, including Anita’s university tuition. Remaining at home during the mother and daughter’s time abroad were Anita’s older sister Valeria (played by Isabelle Ortega), the family’s young housekeeper Dunia (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and Lopez (Justin Huen), who grew up on the estate as the son of one of the laborers but has since grown into both a ‘connected’ member of the local narcotraficantes (with a not unrelated case of perpetual stomach acid) and a potential suitor for Valeria.

Maite believes she is returning home to the financial, social and familial security of her warmly remembered past. In the matriarchal role perhaps most reminiscent of Chekhov’s original casting, Gottesman finds in Maite the perfect tipping point between a culture where femininity once held a certain power but is rapidly becoming meaningless as violence preys upon the traditional order of the past.  Maite represents the stability of the old culture and yet Gottesman’s portrayal reveals that her own stability has been fractured and this return home is as much about resisting her own doubts and fears as it is her intention to rescue her family’s estate.

Youngest daughter Anita feels she is returning (after the freedom and energy of New York) to the benign oppression of her rural youth.  Diana Romo’s portrayal of the self-absorption appropriate to her character’s young age and privileged American existence adds to the sense of dread that winds its way around the story. The audience’s awareness of the threat posed by the drug dealers who have been buying, or when necessary stealing, the lands surrounding her family’s land adds to the tension created by Anita’s naiveté.

Justin Huen’s Lopez knows the truth of the dramatic changes that have overtaken the countryside where the orchard lies. We can see it in his eyes, hear it in his words and his tone of voice, and feel it as he pushes against the burning spot in his belly.  There are many dimensions of masculinity this one character is asked to bring into play and Huen fills out Saracho’s insightful writing with a depth that delivers both understanding and an appreciation of some of life’s mysteries.

Sister Valeria and housekeeper Dunia are observers of what has transpired. Each of their ‘watching,’ however, is different. During the opening act Valeria is beautifully positioned to the side of the stage in an unlit corner, a solitary Greek chorus in what might be the shadows of a fading past or the darkness of a looming future.  This bit of director Woolery’s added touch, not written into the original stage direction, worked wonderfully as a device to pull the audience into the place and time and the drama of what was unfolding before us. As Valeria, Isabelle Ortega’s statuary stillness enveloped and expounded upon everything that was transpiring before her. It creates a moment of theatrical magic – a feeling that we are 3 acts into a play that was actually little more than 3 minutes from the opening curtain.

More active was the watching of Sabrina Zuniga Varela’s Dunia.  Life, for the rest of the characters in the play, is imposed upon them, or as Paul Simon might put it, something that happens while they were busy making other plans. But Dunia, at the plays opening is alive with the sensation of life’s rushing waters. In fact one fears that for her the sound of the water and the speed of the current will prove too much; that her innocence and willingness to explore not only the drama surrounding the fate of the orchard but also her own awakening, as a human being first and a woman second, will be her undoing.  Credit to Saracho for her writing, Woolery for her vision and Varela for her talent in taking Dunia from ‘most likely candidate for coming to a quick and painful disappearance’ at the hands of the narcotraficantes to, in a very real sense, not only the victor of the drama but the hopefulness for humanity that concludes the final scene.

The transition in Dunia from our first encountering her adolescent defiance until our last vision of a woman emerging into the world with a keen sense of her own strength is wonderfully portrayed and makes the conclusion of El Nogalar noticeably different from Chekhov’s final lines and scene directions for The Cherry Orchard. It is Dunia’s transitional attunement to her own power and her sense of timing and opportunity, seized in spite of the risks she faces, that makes El Nogalar a revolutionary experience. Her awakening is the smoldering ember that allows us to feel that the dread imposed by the forces of darkness surrounding the Galvans, who represent us all in their swirling, changing world, are not insurmountable. The hope emerging from hopelessness by the end of the play is more fully realized due to Varela’s ability to play the early Dunia as charming and playful  in such a way that her characterization does not undercut or make false her subsequent emergence as a woman. Later, we can recognize that the woman was always there, ready to be born – but that more mature dimension is never telegraphed, so it’s final revelation is a beautiful bit of work to behold.

It would be remiss not to mention Woolery’s moving choice for the opening scene. With several of the actors posed in their own spotlight the stage takes on the appearance of a true life Diego Rivera mural – the theater is infused with a sense of life’s struggle, of the battle between darkness and light, and there is an immediate desire to know who these people are, what are their stories and will we learn how they are connected to our own.

Given that the Fountain is a smaller stage on which to present a play, set designer Frederica Nascimento and lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz deserve recognition for their contributions. The scenes feel as if they are moving from room to room and occasionally outdoors so that we are never taken out of the dramatic experience but feel instead we know the lay of the house and the lay of the land on which it rests.

Author Saracho’s conception may have some foundation in a theater piece observing the tumultuous world of pre revolutionary Russia, but her play is it’s own work, a timely and moving look at our modern world. In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, with our large Latino population, it also rings true as a powerful exposure to the realities of life beyond television stereotypes and the depersonalizing demagoguery that will be issuing from the political campaigns soon to be upon us. It is a human play, with culture used as seasoning, not the main course.

‘El Nogolar’s’ official opening was Saturday January 28, 2012 – with an initial run at The Fountain Theater currently scheduled through March 11.  For more detailed information on performance schedules and tickets go the Fountain Theater’s website at: http://www.fountaintheatre.com/perform.html 

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