Playwright Octavio Solis prolifically and poetically portrays the Mexican-American experience, but San Diego audiences have not seen much of his work. The San Diego REPertory Theatre mounted productions of his plays in 1991 and 1995, and UC San Diego staged another in 2002.
Ion Theatre is currently producing Solis’s 2008 play, Lydia, and the production makes an excellent case for greater interest in the rest of his work.
Set in El Paso in the early 1970s, Lydia portrays the state of one Mexican-American family in the wake of the Vietnam War and the U. S. civil rights movement. Some of the family were born in the U. S. and are citizens, some were born in Mexico and have become U. S. citizens, and some are in the U. S. without papers. Despite the play’s time period, it could be set in the present with only minor changes – and perhaps that’s part of its point.
But, not all of it – this is a far richer piece of writing than that.
The family consists of father Claudio (John Anthony Delgado), mother Rosa (Sandra Ruiz), sons Rene (Richard Johnson) and Misha (Bernardo Mazón) and daughter Ceci (Jennifer Paredes). Claudio works on the graveyard shift at a job that doesn’t require much thought. He sleeps part of the day, and the rest of it he listens to music on a large set of headphones – and drinks. Rosa has been staying home, but she yearns to go back to work so that the family can have a better life. Rene seems to have given up on life: he does drugs with his friends and sometimes goes out on gay-bashing cruises. Misha is still in high school. He’s a dreamer and a poet.
And Ceci. Ceci was injured in a car accident and has been reduced to being unable to speak coherently or care for herself. Ceci is the reason Rosa has been staying home.
Except, Ceci sees all, understands a lot, and tells the audience what she knows.
Into this family come two interlopers. One is cousin Alvaro (Alexander Guzman), recently back from serving in Vietnam, who has just landed a job with the Border Patrol. Alvaro’s return triggers memories and feelings, both remembered and present.
The other is Lydia (Nadia Guevarra). She presents herself as newly arrived from Mexico and in search of a job as a maid. But, there are holes in her story. She says she’s from Jalisco, but she’s vague about just where. She’s newly arrived and claims she wants to learn English quickly, but her English is already pretty good (and certainly better than Claudio’s). She also seems to know exactly what the family wants and needs, including immediately connecting with Ceci to the point where she starts telling its members what Ceci is trying to say.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lydia’s presence improves conditions for the family, but it also brings up secrets that its members thought they had buried, secrets that will end up changing them and their relationships with each other.
To be effective Lydia requires an exquisite ensemble performance, and it gets one from ion’s cast. Director Claudio Raygoza has a history of coaching strong acting ensembles, and he’s done it once again. While Lydia and Ceci are the two showy roles – and Ms. Guevara and Ms. Paredes are both up to the challenges they face – each of the other characters is crucial to understanding how this family functions.
One goes to ion for the acting, but the spare production (scenic, sound, and projections design by Mr. Raygoza, lighting design by Kevin Kornburger, costume design by Mary Summerday, and properties design by Melissa Hamilton) proves to be artistic and functional at the same time.
Ion is simultaneously preparing a much larger-scale production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George, which begins performances June 28 at the San Diego Museum of Art (Lydia closes July 3). With two productions going at once, it would have been easy to slough off Lydia, but that didn’t happen. Lydia charms and provokes, both by the questions it answers and the ones it doesn’t.