As I was absorbing Stephanie Alison Walker’s new play, The Abuelas, a song burbled up in my fevered brain. It was “Desaparecido,” from Spanish singer-songwriter Manu Chao’s debut album, Clandestino. Back in the miserable Seventies, a brutal military junta took power in Argentina. Anyone who opposed this coup were told “to make themselves invisible, or they would be made to vanish.” Hundreds were arrested and thrown into a brutal military jail. They came to be known as desaparecidos, or the “disappeared ones.” How were they disappeared? They were bound and drugged, flown out into the Atlantic, and chucked out of airplanes. Heinous enough, but then there were the young, pregnant women who were kept chained in prison, with bags over their heads, and made to deliver their babies into the hands of a prison midwife who then handed the babies over to soldiers who then gave them to complicit couples who illegally adopted them. These sad young mothers were also “disappeared.”
Resistance burbled up in the form of mothers and grandmothers, “The Madres” and “The Abuelas” who bravely began to crusade for information that might give them the solace of knowing the fates of the desaparacidos and of the stolen children, with the hope of delivering them back to their rightful families. The Abuelas, a searing, emotional, affecting play tells the story of one such family.
Set in a high-rise apartment that faces out toward Lake Michigan in an ever-colder Chicago winter. Gabriela (Luisina Quarleri), is a first chair cello player at the Chicago Symphony. She has a young baby, Lukas, and an architect husband, Marty (Seamus Dever). Her mother, Soledad (Denise Blasor), visiting from Argentina, is a cheerfully domineering sort who likes things her way. The beautiful, talented Gabriela has an off-putting, distant demeanor with both her husband and her mother, which becomes more so as the action progresses. There are road bumps in the young couples past, and Gabriela would love to see her mother gone.
The couple is visited by Argentinians Carolina (Irene De Bari), a woman about the age of Soledad, and César (David DeSantos), a forensic researcher who specializes in genetics. Although Carolina seems fragile, César is delightfully energetic and entertaining. When Carolina calls on César to tell a story, he is reluctant to do so, but, with much prodding, he begins a tale of his youth and family and ends with the revelation that he is a son of a desaparecido.
The action of the play becomes intense, complicated, and fraught with searing revelations for all of the characters. There are time jumps to the junta’s prison where a very pregnant young woman (Carolina Montenegro) languishes as she sings to her fetus. And the playwright also delivers a scene of magical realism.
Under the direction of Andi Chapman, the two-act play is intense and affecting, delivered by a cast at the top of their craft. Sometimes the pace lags, but that is a small quibble in an otherwise sterling performance.
The production is fortunate to have an A+ bunch of theatre geniuses. A terrific set designed by Edward E. Haynes Jr. is enhanced by the lighting design of Andrew Schmedake, which keeps the focus on the players as the Chicago apartment becomes a prison, an airport, a rooftop, and a political event. The set boasts floor to ceiling windows up right that, thanks to the excellent work of projection designer Adam R. Macias, gives a view of the Chicago waterfront and the “inland sea” of Lake Michigan as winter gradually takes hold and becomes a blizzard. The sound design by Jeff Gardner is sterling with cello music and other complimentary sounds, and terrific rumbles that shake the audience in their seats. Properties designer, David Saewart, spares no details. I especially appreciated the food props. Costumes by Wendell C. Carmichael support time, place, character, and action. The choreographer is Indira Tyler, and Ryan McRee is dramaturg. The assistant director is Jessica E. Williams, and Karen Osborne deftly manages the stage manager.
Presented by Antaeus Theatre Company, The Abuelas continues through November 25 and runs in rotating rep with Eight Nights, which opens on October 31 and closes on December 16, all at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway in Glendale.