Genesis, age 13, is home from school on early dismissal when her mother walks in carrying a gun she will use a few minutes later to kill her abusive husband.
Don’t worry. No spoiler alerts are needed. The killing may come late in “Morir Sonyando,” Erlina Ortiz’s far-reaching look at how domestic violence affects a family, but it’s spoken about from the beginning and informs every scene in Ortiz’s time-jumping narrative.
“Morir Sonyando,” at Trenton’s Passage Theater through Sunday, May 19, explores the harm that emerges in families as dissatisfaction or wounded, confusing feelings evolve into ridicule that evolves into bruising that becomes habitual.
Ortiz deals with emotional as well as physical scars and shows how hard they are to heal, especially when anger delays, or even precludes, understanding.
The play is not sequential. Its course follows the thought patterns, memories, and real-time activity of its lead character, Genesis Arias, seen from early childhood to a challenging adulthood as she grapples with her life before and after her mother takes arms against an otherwise unending sea of trouble.
“Morir Sonyando,” named for a popular Dominican beverage that plays two counterpointing roles in Ortiz’s story and contains an intentional misspelling — soñando being correct — also features strong depictions of the mother, Paloma, seen from innocent youth through imprisonment to premature senility, and Genesis’s brother, Felix, who is too young and too sentimental to share his sister’s experience or reaction to it.
Ortiz covers a lot of territory and does so with depth. She lets us see Genesis and Paloma at various stages to provide a full and vivid picture of their lives and their changing states of consciousness and realization. Light, even funny, moments are combined with scenes of intense anger. Paloma, who earns a bachelor’s degree in prison, articulately describes what led her to kill and her contentious relationship with her daughter.
Genesis, still figuring out what her mother has processed, is not always so clear or able to express the welter of thoughts and images that consume her. Ortiz touches on how intolerance for alcohol influences both women’s lives and, while depicting the measures people take when struggling with a tough situation, includes a scene in which Felix takes Genesis to a voodoo priestess for counsel.
Symbolism also abounds. “Paloma” is Spanish for dove, and Paloma collects images of the bird. A faceless doll that is common in Dominican culture figures prominently throughout Ortiz’s play. Between scenes slides appear offering statistical information about domestic abuse and the amount of crime it spawns. There is also a television documentary about Paloma and her crime that hastens her release from jail. Violence begetting violence, even unwitting violence, is also broached.
A lot goes on. Ortiz doesn’t miss much in terms of relating her story from different angles. The beauty is how deftly the playwright presents the complex while keeping each scene simple and pointed, “Morir Sonyando’s” parts accumulating to a revelatory and thought-provoking sum.
The author’s completeness, and the potential for characterization and drama, makes one wish for a stronger, more passionate, more penetrating production.
C. Ryanne Domingues moves “Morir Sonyando’s” action adroitly from scene to scene and makes watching Ortiz’s play enjoyable, but the tone of her production is too consistent. High points and low, sequences ablaze with drama, and sequences with gentler purpose are played at the same level of intensity.
Domingues invites us into the world, or worlds, Ortiz creates, and presents that world clearly, but without eliciting or sparking much emotion. Even the pivotal scene, one we know is coming and wait to see depicted, the scene in which Paloma kills her husband, comes across as matter-of-fact. There’s no heightened tension. The pity and terror that should accompany such action is absent. Even the muffled sound of gunshots fails to raise the temperature of Domingues’ staging.
This evenness doesn’t cloud Ortiz’s play or keep one from appreciating its facets, but it keeps one from getting involved or caring deeply. A lot is taken in, but nothing has a large effect. The experience is more intellectual, as if a story is being read or told. I kept thinking “Morir Sonyando” should have more of a jolt, that I should be more engrossed in what I’m seeing rather than taking it casually.
Domingues’s cast is able to take “Morir Sonyando,” which translates “to die dreaming,” a reference to how good the eponymous beverage tastes, to higher levels.
Maria Peyremaure efficiently expresses the many moods, upheavals, and experiences Genesis contends with as she makes sense of her entire history so she can continue with the productive life she has planned. Ortiz gives Genesis a failing of her own, alcoholism, that leads to a telling scene set in 2024.
Peyremaure makes you want Genesis to succeed even though you know the hardness Paloma sees in her and shares with her might add to the difficulties she has coping with her mother’s act and her guilt about it.
Johanna Tolentino is direct in the documentary scenes shot while Paloma is in prison. She shows great versatility in revealing Paloma as an optimistic newlywed and expectant mother who is grateful her husband has brought her to Philadelphia from the Dominican Republic and as a woman whose mind is slipping into senility. One scene is which this production goes from matter-of-fact to touching is when we see Paloma drifting from the cogent to the unsure or forgetful moment by moment.
Daniel Colon creates a bright breeziness each time he enters as the less troubled, more optimistic Felix, a young man who has been protected from all his sister has witnessed and who can comfortably relate to his sister and mother in ways the other two cannot muster towards each other.
Dustin Pettigrew’s set serves all situations well and allows for the flow Domingues needs to make quick changes in time and mood clear. Sadah “Espii” Proctor does a great job providing projections that define place and impart information. Caitlin Cisek’s costumes suit each character well.
Morir Sonyando, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, May 19, Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 3 p.m. $33 to $38. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.