For its first production of its 30th anniversary season, Trenton’s Passage Theater is presenting the world premiere of a fine new play — one that combines humor with a horrifying event and provides a glimpse into traditional Mexican family values. As the second play in a proposed trilogy by lauded Mexican-born, Chicago-based playwright Tanya Saracho, “Song for the Disappeared” brings a fresh and bracing perspective to how we see the lives of various members of a wealthy family close to the border town of McAllen, Texas.
This play, like “El Nogalar,” the first play in the trilogy, continues to reveal some of the issues within the Mexican caste system and the social subtleties that remain as a wedge in a complex society. It is not, however, a sequel to “El Nogalar” (which Saracho says was inspired by Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and had its premiere at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2012). “Song for the Disappeared” continues with a different set of characters to reveal more of her theme. It also contends with the crime element and the devastating cartels that have affected so many Mexican lives.
A tragedy might be avoided, as we meet the members of the Cantu family, all of whom have been summoned to the ranch by Leo (Felipe Gorostiza), the family patriarch. News has reached him that his son, Javi, has been missing for two days, with evidence leading to the assumption that he may have been kidnapped for ransom. Following the death of his wife, Leo has only recently married his skittish but also very shapely/sexy secretary, Mila (Annie Dow). His beautiful trophy wife is escorted back to the ranch house that she has redecorated — in her own somewhat tacky image — by Mario (Thomas Christopher Nieto), the family’s longtime but newly born-again Christian bodyguard.
Living alone in the house is the youngest daughter Nena (a beautifully introspective performance by Christina Nieves) whom everyone refers to as being “delicate.” She has apparently been getting along fine taking her medication and caring for injured birds and small animals that she nurses in shoe boxes. More unsettling is the reluctant return of the older sister, Adriana (Vivia Font), who has had little to do with the family since she left Mexico and became a published author of a book that apparently exposes the narcos operations on the U.S./Mexican border. The family rightfully presumes that the notoriety of the book might have made them a target.
It is with Adriana’s arrival that the pulse and the pace of the play are picked up — especially as we see the impact of Adriana’s visible and risible condescending attitude toward everyone and to everything she left behind. The casting of Font as the terrifically exasperating Adriana, is notable: she grew up in Princeton and got her earliest acting experiences as part of the McCarter Theater’s summer Shakespeare program.
What’s really funny is how Adriana’s attitude almost goes unnoticed by the blissfully detached but hardly ditsy Mila who says, “It’s funny, how people think we are safe on this side. Talking about the crime in Mexico. The violence on the other side, the killings south of us, the balaceras over there, as if that little wire fence could keep this monster away. Stupid gringos.”
Adriana’s sustained disdain does not get by Leo, who is shocked by her crude American euphemisms and the lack of respect for him, calling him dad, instead of papi. Adriana does have an affectionate, long standing rapport with Nena who, except for the wild dogs on the prowl, is oblivious to the dangers that lurk outside.
How these family members interact with each other becomes as paramount as their coming up with a plan that will bring their missing brother home. Driven more by its characters than by its plot, the play offers amusing insights into changing times and values as well as the importance of family bonds.
Saracho, who founded the Chicago-based all-Latina women Teatro Luna in 2000 and has had many of her plays produced to acclaim at many of the nation’s major regional theaters, has a distinctive voice that resonates with authority. This play seems both authentic as well as audacious in its mix of terror and tempers. The inherent fear of the family for the worst to happen and their hope for the best is mainly experienced through their testy and uneasy relationships.
The performances, under Alex Correia’s deft direction, are all outstanding. Dow is terrific as Mila and is close enough to parody with her hot body in constant motion to put us off our guard. Gorostiza fumes as Leo, and Nieto is on constant vigil as the devoted and unruffled Mario.
The interior of the ranch house and its exterior porch with their arched doorways are the splendid work of set designer German Cardenas-Alaminos. The final play in the trilogy is still to be written, but I’m quite sure it will show us even more illuminating aspects of our neighbors south of the border.
Song for the Disappeared, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, October 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. $12 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.