In the 1970s, the “Dirty War” in Argentina, a right wing military coup resulting in a repressive junta, cost the lives of some 30,000 people regarded as anti-government. The targets were trade unionists, intellectuals, artists, students, and anyone regarded as socialists. The victims were arrested, tortured and killed, very often, famously, by being thrown alive out of airplanes far off in the Atlantic Ocean. They were referred to as los desaparecidos, the disappeared ones. As the years wore on into the 1980s, the junta enjoyed the clandestine support of the United States Government as was the case in other Latin American countries at the time. Eventually a group of women, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, stood vigil outside government offices in protest wearing their signature white headscarves.
Stephanie Alison Walker’s new play, The Madres, addresses socio-political history as seen through the lens of one matriarchal family. Josefina Acosta (Margarita Lamas), a tightly wound grandmother who obsessively spends her time cleaning, dusting, ironing and cooking, keeps her emotions in tight control. Her granddaughter, a pregnant desaparecida (Natalie Llerena), is gone, who knows where? The girl’s mother, Carolina (Arianna Ortiz), has become one of the madres standing in the plaza on Thursday afternoons, an action that makes the grandmother’s blood run cold in fear. A visit from a priest, Padre Juan (Gabriel Romero), well known to the family, but not seen for years, amps up the tension. The amiable priest takes confessions from the soldiers in the government ministry. His loyalties are questionable. He asks after the missing granddaughter and Josefina feeds him the family’s concocted story of how her daughter and her husband are in France, a fiction that helps them overcome their dread. When a boy from the neighborhood named Diego (Alexander Pimentel), a classmate of the missing girl, shows up at the Acosta apartment dressed in military uniform, his tight military bearing and his questions regarding the Desaparecida instill an even higher level of dread in the old woman. As the play moves on, the tension ratchets up. Josefina and Carolina become aware of a woman in a car on the street below the apartment who seems intent on surveillance. Josefina and Carolina clash over the madres movement, clash over house cleaning, the bickering often petty, all due of course to the tension of the times.
The intent of the playwright is to shine a light on the ongoing suffering of those who endured the bleakness of the junta’s rule, whose loved ones are gone. It is a moral, lest-we-forget lesson. It is a noble effort and each member of the cast brings considerable theatrical charisma to the stage. However, the playwright has not given them much to work with in the way of character depth. The characters are thinly drawn allowing for little in the way of nuance. The men suffer the most from this lack. Diego is written and directed as a brute, a stick, allowing Mr. Pimentel, who is a very appealing actor, little in the range emotion. The priest is written as a caricature, amiable and predictable. As Carolina, Ms. Ortiz comes off the best carrying the greatest emotional load.
The Madres is directed by Sara Guerrero, with set by Christopher Scott Murillo, lighting by Wes Chew, sound by Corinne Corrillo, and costumes by Josephine Siu. The play runs through April 29 at Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ North Vermont Los Angeles.