- Mariela in the Desert
- By Karen Zacarias
- Produced by Theater of the First Amendment
- Directed by Nick Olcott
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
While Mariela in the Desert has a fine playwright, an estimable director, a polished, Equity-laden cast -it doesn’t jell. The play is muddled, contrived, and given to histrionic excess. It is full of dialogue written with the sole purpose of giving background to the audience (for example, a character observes that Mexican women had been given the vote the year previous – a fact everyone in the play would know – in order for us to place the play in 1954.)
Periodically playwright Zacarias betrays what I can only conclude is a lack of confidence in the storytelling, or the audience. “Carlos cried all day and Papi cried all night,” young Blanca Salvatierra (Ryan Christie) tells her mother, the title character, toward the end of the second act, “but you, you never cried at all.” Had Zacarias established the title character’s fearlessness in the face of trouble, the last line would have been completely unnecessary – and if she hadn’t, her daughter’s observation would not have done the job.
Valerie Leonard’s decision to play Mariela as if she were a candidate for public office doesn’t help matters either. She delivers every line as though it is designed to be recorded for future publication and immortality, instead of as the ordinary conversation of a frustrated artist trapped by her own bad choices and those of her husband José (Timmy Ray James) on a ranch in the middle of the Mexican desert. James, who delivers most of his dialogue in a roar, is similarly unable to sell José as an interesting or even a real character.
A play holds our interest when it asks a narrative question: did Claudius kill Hamlet’s father, and if so, will Hamlet kill him?; will Oscar and Felix ever discover how to get along?; did Father Flynn really molest that boy, and if so, will Sister Aloysius call him to account? Mariela asks no question in the first act that we can possibly decipher. Instead, it opens with a lie – Mariela sending a telegram to Blanca stating that her father is dead in order to trick her into coming home – and descends into bigotry (Mariela and José cannot stand Blanca’s art-professor lover because he is an American) and self-important piety from José’s sister Olivia (Jennifer L. Nelson).
We eventually learn that José, though not dead, is sick, apparently suffering from diabetes and incompetent medical treatment; that Mariela and José, an artist of some reputation, moved their family to a ranch in northern Mexico hoping to start an artists’ colony (Mexico City being too bourgeois); that Mariela gave up her art after José relayed a discouraging word from Diego Rivera;; that in addition to Blanca they had a son, Carlos (Michael Vitaly Sazonov), who is now dead or missing. When Blanca and her professor (Michael Kramer) come to the ranch, we are told that Blanca has become a pretty good artist. In a series of flashbacks, we see that Carlos suffered from some sort of unspecified mental or emotional disorder which resembles moderate autism but which gets worse as he grows older. Mariela tells various conflicting stories about her parents, cementing the central impression she gives us: that she’s a liar and an unreliable narrator, whose principal objective is to manipulate.
It might be possible to make a story out of all these improbable events, but Zacarias simply permits them to buffet the audience, in the manner of a melodrama. Christie and Kramer struggle admirably to give the play a more natural feel, but the dialogue is not their ally.
There is a story which emerges in the second act. It is an unlikely one which depends on a series of wholly unmotivated decisions to bring it to climax, but it is a legitimate story nonetheless. (I cannot give any of the details without spoiling it for readers).
There are some very attractive elements to the show: the performance of Christie and Sazonov as children; a nice physical bit involving Leonard, James and Kramer; a fine set (Anne Gibson) with good scrim use; excellent lighting (the ubiquitous Colin K. Bills); sweet and melancholy sound (Matthew M. Neilson) and spot-on costumes (Kathleen Geldard), which the actors changed into with impressive alacrity. It is good to see Jennifer L. Nelson, who plays Olivia, on stage again. Zacarias has not given her much to work with, but Nelson does a creditable job.
“Art is about truth,” Zacarias has her professor exclaim at one point. Although Zacarias is well and truly an artist who has had recent local productions this season of The Book Club Play and Looking for Roberto Clemente, I am compelled to confess that I found very little true, or even credible, about the disappointing Mariela in the Desert.
- Running Time: 2:00 including a 15 minute intermission.
- When: Fridays through Sundays until June 29, also on Wednesday, June 18 and Thursday, June 26. All shows are at 8 p.m., except for Sunday, June 15 and 29, which is at 2, and Sunday, June 22, which is at 4. In addition, there are 2 p.m. shows on Saturdays.
- Where: Harris Theater, on the campus of George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA.
- Tickets: $30 for Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; all others $25. To reserve, call 888.945.2468 or go to the website.