El Amor Nunca Se Olvida translates as “Love Is Never Forgotten” — and at Steve’s suburban Boston house, neither is the popular telenovela’s start time. Guadalupe, his former mother-in-law, wouldn’t miss it; even Steve has taken a mild interest amid the monthlong wake of his wife’s death.
However well-meaning, the duo is short in the consolation department. Guadalupe is a Mexico native, and her English is marginal at best, while Steve’s Spanish is equally lame.
Guadalupe in the Guest Room, current entry at Carlsbad’s New Village Arts, charts their courses amid their shared grief, with Guadalupe throwing herself into a translation project as Steve nurses his easily offended sense of solitude. Playwright Tony Meneses’ script succeeds where so much modern theater pulls up short — he’s actually supplied a tight, vivid subtext, which helps fuel Nadia Guevara’s dutiful mainstage-debut direction.
Its slow start notwithstanding, Guadalupe is quite the little situational drama, unassuming in its trajectory and reassuring in its tribute to hard-won fresh starts.
The San Diego premiere is staged by Teatro Pueblo Nuevo (TPN), which NVA associate artistic director Guevara founded in 2017 as NVA’s bilingual and bicultural initiative. It seeks to brand its productions and community outreach events as Latinx (la-teen-ex), a gender-neutral term created to modify suffixes on descriptors such as “Latino” and “Latina.”
NVA presented Cloud Tectonics, TPN’s first mainstage production, in January of this year.
Steve is a schlubby thirtysomething who needs a life now that wife Claudia has died — his widower’s longing extends to the bedroom as he implores Guadalupe never to make his bed (a demand she sweetly and innocently ignores). Guadalupe has a constructive outlet for her bereavement; she’s translating some English-language children’s stories Claudia wrote and illustrated, and Raquel, who taught middle-school Spanish with Claudia, is helping. She’s also wooed by the kindly Roberto, a gardener Steve has recently hired.
A move like that would have undermined the relationship between the show’s TV-driven reality and real life . . .
From there, the totally over-the-top telenovela takes center stage. Its heroine, also named Claudia, has a blind twin sister, and both are eventually set upon by a couple ne’er-do-wells. One of the show’s intervals evokes Guadalupe’s rage as she recalls a talk with the late Claudia about Steve; Steve responds equally emotionally, and amid their catharses, both characters may well come to blows.
But of course, they don’t. A move like that would have undermined the relationship between the show’s TV-driven reality and real life, distracting from Meneses’ peaceable conclusion and the script’s considerable utility.
Gabriela Nelson responds in kind with her very nice turn as Guadalupe, in whom relatively still waters run exceptionally deep. Tom Steward’s fair Steve discovers this in no uncertain terms, although the actor lacks a widower’s sinew at the beginning of the play (in Steward’s defense, Meneses is mildly ahead of himself in introducing Steve).
Gardener Roberto is a mild and humble sort, especially when it comes to Guadalupe, and Daniel Novoa is quite strong in his according portrayal. And Ciarlene Coleman! Her Raquel is as breezy as you care, owing to the character’s obvious love of teaching and life in general. Very good turn.
Set designer Tanya Orellana has the right idea in terms of the house’s blueprint, but the colors and lines are a tad too crisp and clean against Steve’s new forlornness. Carmen Amon’s costumes, TJ Fucella’s sound and Curtis Mueller’s lights integrate nicely, each declaring themselves accordingly against the funny scenes from the telenovela (George Ye is fight choreographer).
The 90-minute, one-act Guadalupe would have made a decent two-acter — such is the extent to which Meneses’ talent for characterization would take it. And it isn’t bicultural in its thrust so much as bitopical; Anglos and Hispanics have an equal claim on soap-opera idiocy, just as they seek gender harmony in the wake of life’s bitter pills. But Meneses and Guevara collaborate persuasively on the family dynamic and its vicissitudes, cultural underpinnings notwithstanding. This is a good show, precursing the companies’ even better outlooks for the remainder of their seasons.
This review is based on the performance of Oct. 7. Guadalupe in the Guest Room runs through Oct. 28 at New Village Arts, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $28-$39. (760) 433-3245, newvillagearts.org.