Mariela Salvatierra (Rachel Gonzalez), a stoic beauty, wears a mask of patience as she sponges down her much older husband, Jose, who is in the last stages of the diabetes that both know will kill him. Jose (Vance Valencia) is cranky and short with her, whining and complaining of pain and discomfort. It is clear that their relationship, based in an abiding marital and familial love, is strained. Jose is, or was, a painter of some renown counting such luminaries as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and David Alfaro Siqueiros among his friends. Mariela, it is soon revealed, is also a gifted painter, although she has not put brush to canvas in many years, subsuming her talent and yielding to the constraints of a wife and mother.
The year is 1951 and the couple, along with Jose’s spinster sister, Oliva (Denise Blasor), lives in the Sonoran Desert far from the Mexican metropolis. It was Jose’s dream to move to the open sky of the desert hoping it would inspire him to greatness. He dreamed of it as a commune where other painters would come and live and produce brilliant art. Some of the greats did come for a celebration, but none stayed. The couple had children—Carlos (Kenneth Lopez), a son who died tragically, and a daughter, Blanca (Vannessa Vasquez) who was sent away to school in Mexico City when was fifteen. It would be an understatement to say that the family ties are strained. In order to get her daughter to come home to see her dying father, Mariela sends a telegram telling Blanca that her father has died. Blanca, now a young woman and also a promising painter does return home and with her lover, Adam Lovitz (Randy Vasquez), an art history professor who has the double strikes of being an American and much older than his paramour, a replication of Mariela’s situation vis-à-vis Jose.
Mariela in the Desert is a fascinating, astute study in family dynamics among intelligent, passionate people. Mariela’s mask of duty seldom slips, but as played by Ms. Gonzalez in a sterling performance, the full range of emotions—love, disgust, grief, repression, yearning, frustration, regret and more—radiate from her. Mr. Valencia’s performance mirrors many of the same emotions, but from the position of male dominance. He is sharp-tongued, lashing out in frustration over his condition, his artistic and domestic failures, and, of course, the fear of his impending death. In a subtle, understated performance as Oliva, Ms. Blasor expresses love and concern for her family and fear of the future through a layer of Catholic dogma.
Ms. Vasquez does very credible double duty as a grown-up Blanca struggling to find her way as an artist and woman, as well as expressing the guileless, energetically intelligent and gifted child she was. Mr. Lopez, a very capable actor, has the difficult job of impersonating a boy with, as the euphemism goes, challenges. It is not quite clear what exactly is wrong with him, but he is often frightened, overwhelmingly distressed, in constant motion and, off-stage, bangs his head into walls. He is also endearing with his mother and, in a dénoument moment of magical realism, a handsome young man. And Mr. Vasquez brings considerable stage magnetism to his role as the American professor Adam Lovitz, an outsider dropped into a family crisis.
Ms. Zacarías’ script is lean and precise. The language is a beautiful gift to the actors who are expertly guided under the fine direction of well-known film and television star Robert Beltran. The show is visually splendid with a fine set by Marco De Leon and lighting by Kevin Vasquez. The projection design by Yee Eun Nam is splendid and adds tremendously to the visual aspect of the production. Costumes by Abel Alvarado support time, place and character.
A joint production of Casa 0101 and Angel City Theater Ensemble, the absorbing Mariela in the Desert runs through December 11 on The Main Stage at CASA 0101 Theater, 2102 East First Street, Boyle Heights, California.