CHARITY: Part III of the (Unfinished) A Mexican Trilogy

Sal Lopez, Evelina Fernandez & Ofelia Medina

Los Angeles Theater Center, Through June 3rd at LATC

Reviewed by Senior Theater Critic Dale Reynolds

The husband-and-wife team of José Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernández, who run the Latino Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, are quite the team; she writes, he directs and we all win.

Their latest collaboration Charity is part three of their unfinished trilogy of one Mexican-American family, the Garcia’s, three generations of whom live together in a Los Angeles house in 2005, during the time of the passing of Pope John-Paul II.  The eldest is Nana (Ofelia Medina), 125 years old, a sickly woman who lives in her past as her present is unhappy, resented by her granddaughter, Gina (Ms. Fernández), but loved by her great-granddaughter, Valentina (Esperanza America Ibarra).  Her other surviving grandchildren, all grownup now, are the gay Bobby (Geoffrey Rivas) and the zaftig Betty (Lucy Rodriguez).  Gina’s long-suffering husband, Rudy (Rudy Ramos), tries to keep peace between the doddering Nana and the grieving Gina, who’s only son, Emiliano (Sam Golzari) has recently been killed in battle in Iraq.  Into this tense household arrives Juan Francisco (Jonathan William Cruz), a Mexican immigrant cousin, whose presence upsets Gina even more.

As Nana glides towards death (although even at a century-and-a-quarter, dying doesn’t appear to be imminent), she conjures up the ghosts (or perhaps just memories) of her philandering late husband Silvestre (Sal López) and the recently killed Emiliano, with long conversations about the past.

It’s an ambitious play, mostly realized as Ms. Fernández explores the deeply-held emotional convictions of her Latino family.  Dealing as she does with the grander mysteries of life and the more prosaic problems of just living, she deepens her story with strong characterizations.  Being a terrific actress herself, the playwright has given strong acting words to even the sketchiest of characters:  Rudy, Silvestre, Emiliano, Betty, Bobby and Juan Francisco (“call me Frankie”) – all allow the actors great freedoms in playing them.  Saving the plumiest roles for herself and Ms. Ibarra, which both actors make the most of, the strongest role and best performance belongs to the legendary Ms. Medina, a star in Mexico for her work in television, film and international theatre.  She shines here as the wreck of an old woman, all in white, with long, flowing hair, playing off the present with the past, smoking her hand-rolled cigarettes, and lashing out at her dead husband and live grand-daughter.  It’s a bravura performance, which she dominates easily, in fluent English and Spanish.

Most of the actors are standouts, which says much about Valenzuela’s creative eye and directorial sense.  Directing this large cast on Francois-Pierre Couture and Teshi Nakagawa’s expressive set, under Cameron Mock’s effective light and videography design, Carlos Brown’s casual costumes, along with the other superb technical requirements, make this a show to see as well as feel.  While Rivas’ flamboyant gayman does hit his marks – he’s too general in his campiness, lacking authenticity – but Lopez’ double-duty as the dead husband and the live Vietnam-vet pal of Rudy is remarkable for completely different and equally effective characterizations.  The set alone, on this two-story-high theatre, using pictures of the past to set the mood and the look of this habitat, effectively set the temper of Valenzuela’s piece.

What might be considered problematic is the bi-lingual English/Spanish in her play, which was partially solved by huge screens set on either side of the stage translating the two languages into their respective alternatives.  The trouble was one had to shift one’s head to read and swivel back quickly to notice the actors saying it.  Whiplash, occasionally.  It would help to have the supertitles flashed just above the heads of the actors, allowing for a quicker response time.  Just a thought.

The LATC has, once again, proven itself of value to L.A. theatre-goers with their upkeep on an L.A. treasure, a former bank and stock-market dating from the 1920s.  It is an architectural gem worth noting.  Check it out.  There’s usually something strong being performed there, such as Charity or Girl lMost Likely to.

Through June 3rd, 2012, at the LATC, 514 S. Spring Street, downtown Los Angeles.  Tickets:  866.811.4111 or www.thelatc.org.