Under the direction of José Luis Valenzuela, Latino Theater Company resident playwright Evelina Fernández’ new work, The Mother of Henry, is a complex concoction that can bemuse an audience at first with its stylistic, choreographed set changes, some broadly played characters, and a tall, angel-winged guitarist (Robert J. Revell) who expertly plays and sings some of the late 1960s catalog of rousing songs of social justice, including, at a key moment, a thrilling rendition of Jimi Hendrix’ “Star Spangled Banner.”
Connie (Cheryl Umaña), a divorced mother with a son, Henry, recently inducted into the armed forces at the height of the Viet Nam War in 1968, takes a job in the returns department on the seventh floor of the famous Boyle Heights Sears store, renowned for its Art Deco style. Shy, hesitant and unsure of herself, she is guided by the experienced staff, which includes the manager, tall, kindly, hesitant Herb (Gary Patent), the meek Canadian, Olga (Mary-Beth Manning), the hilariously brash, braying, loudmouth Loretta (Ella Saldana North), and Manny (Xavi Moreno), a slick, married womanizer.
At home Connie (short for Concepción) takes care of her wheelchair-bound mother (Esperanza America), who scolds her hilariously in Spanish. Connie is awash in anguish over what she perceives as her modest abilities, and fears for her son. The play takes flight in a splendid bit of magical realism, when, while praying, La Virgen de Guadeloupe (Ms. America) appears in an alcove high above the stage singing brilliantly and passionately accompanied by her resident angel, which she does throughout the play. Connie wants La Virgen to protect her son; the saint demurs. It is beyond her power.
Time and events march on exemplified by the huge, stunning projections by Yee Eun Nam that show the events of that terrible year, 1968, with its death and politics. Each character has his or her own trajectory that is affected by the events. With the music and the projections and each characters’ dramatic struggle, the affect of the play is profoundly touching, especially so for one who has lived through it. It was finally the voice and images of Bobby Kennedy that brought tears to my eyes, and do so even as I write these words. The losses of those years lead directly to the politics of now.
The cast, under the inspired direction of Mr. Valenzuela, is splendid. The guitar playing and songs sung by Mr. Revell and Ms. America are like being at the Fillmore or Winterland back in the day.
The creative team for The Mother of Henry includes set designer Emily McDonald, lighting designer Cameron Mock, sound designer John Zalewski, the aforementioned projections designer Yee Eun Nam, costume designer Carlos Brown, and movement coordinator and choreographer Urbanie Lucero. Michelle A. Prudente manages the stage with equanimity.
The Latino Theater Company production of The Mother of Henry runs through April 20, with an added performance on Wednesday, April 17, at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street in Down Town Los Angeles.