GALA director Abel Lopez and his inspired performers make The Aging of the Plum/La Edad de la Ciruela so mesmerizing and real, it moves beyond magic into the sublime. Enacted to the max in the exaggerated style of magical realism, the actors cut to the heart of it and deliver Aristides Vargas’ poetic imagery, as if playing a beautiful violin sonata. This play by a Spanish-speaking playwright of dual-nationality, so transcends any language barrier, that at the end I wanted to go home and hug my family.
A paradoxical statement when you consider the frame: Two adult sisters sit at desks on opposite sides of the stage and correspond about their dying mother, Francisca (Maria Brito). A family plum tree that once sheltered, fed and inebriated their guests with plum wine, evoke childhood memories. When Lorena Sabogal as Eleonora and Monalisa Arias as Celina walk the stage and sip the wine from the family tree, the actresses practice sleight-of-land, on-stage costume changes and transform gesture and mannerism to become themselves as little girls, who pop out of the family trunk, loaded with emotional baggage. Once they played with a rat they named “Plum”; until Celina beat it to death and put it in their wardrobe to rot like an aging plum. And even though grandmother Gumersinda, played by Enriqueta Lara, tells us the secret to great wine is “the age of the plum,” the aging process is overtaking the matriarchs who over populate this house and crowd the girls’ memories. Caught in unhappy arranged marriages or love/hate relationships with each other, all are entrapped by Time, circumstance and an oppressive culture. That’s the plot.
The play progresses briskly, at a pace that will set your mind spinning, thanks to Lopez, the magician of tempo. Not easy with a flash-back, memory-play. Eleonora, clearly enunciated by actress Lorena Sabogal, remembers her mother, the aunts, and grandmother as not only out of touch with their true selves, but also plagued by bad timing. Versatile, guest-actress from Venezuela, Maria Brito, has many shining moments as Francisca, their mother, and their grandmother, Maria, both roles delivered with commanding authority.
But not all vignettes are downers; most are upbeat. Take the humorous, highpoint mock-trial scene when Eleonora and Celina sentence Time to stop as punishment for causing death in life. Grandmother Maria, enacted with haughty grandeur by Maria Brito, takes time to torture her daughter, Victoria, with suffocating violin lessons. Ironically, however, Victoria, enacted by Becky Webber, who plays a real violin, is a white-masked, mysterious sylph, who would be a somewhat terrifying figure if it wasn’t for that fact that she actually plays lyrically warm violin passages for scene transitions. A wonderful directorial add-in, not called for in the script.
Equally worthy of mention is marvelous Lucretia Basualdo, (in a bravura performance as Blanquita, the cheated servant), who speaks out straight-ahead with sardonic and pithy Brechtian direct address to the audience. Blanquita looks us in the eyes and injects some down-to-earth realism, like a truth serum. When Time stops, great ladies are surrounded by comfort, she tells us, but a servant is stuck, always a servant. “That’s why I can’t let go of this blasted glass,” Blanquita cries out, only one of her laugh-lines, that serve as comic balance. What’s the servant learned from life? “People are not cats with nine lives….You only have one life.” So live it.
Late in the play, Brito as Francisca nudges her sister Jacinta, (again by Lucrecia Basualdo) off a platform and tells her to find the innocent boy of her youth, the “Apollo” she lost thirty years ago, who haunts her imagination. Jacinta walks as if in a sleepwalking trance that says it all about the agonizing pain of not being able to go back to a happy childhood. The women’s collective losses were the missed moments of connection and happiness, the standing by in silence, what they were trained to do, the conformity that was easier than rebellion. All seems allegorical for the cycle of life that spins like a bicycle wheel and still permeates Eleonora and Celina with sadness.
What about that rat that gets killed by a little girl? Even rats have souls we are told. The smell of his carcass becomes synonymous with the decay in the family and perhaps in society of the time as well. Yet I couldn’t help but be reminded that rats are good guys today in Columbia for sniffing out landmines planted by rebel terrorists.
But beyond that rat as a symbolic prop, you have to drink in that magnificent, surreal set, as absorbing as an intricate puzzle that never upstages the superb acting, only integrates with the message, and doesn’t need elaborate, revolving machinery. Designed by Elizabeth J. McFadden, it’s as effective as a Dali painting, a marvel to behold. (Award nominators, please take note.) As the characters cross an inlaid hardwood floor encircled by a gigantic clock with Roman numerals, like that of an antique pocket watch, the characters seemed trapped between two worlds. Clouds on broken flats form a celestial backdrop. Twisted branches of a black silhouette of a plum tree suggest family history. The tree takes on different hues to match changing moods. Flickering red lighting under the platforms suggests Hell in life. Masterful lighting by Ayun Fedorcha does it all.
How do these women break out of the patterns that stifle and destroy them? Are sisters, aunts mothers and grandmothers doomed to pass on the pattern of love/hate relationships, sibling rivalry and unhappiness from generation to generation? Lopez directs with a good sense for when to stand aside and let his talented female actresses reign the stage to give us the answers. There are moments when the language barrier will frustrate the English speakers but excellent sur-titles by Barbara Phillips help. Somehow Vargas brings all the images together by the ending, which I won’t reveal. So go, and shower the stage with roses, not plums (or rats).
Running Time: 1:50 minutes with onel 20 minute intermission. English sur-titles provided in overhead projections.
When: Thursdays – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. in Spanish with English surtitles through Sunday, October 12, 2008.
Where: GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square, 3333 14th Street N.W., at Park Road (Columbia Heights Metro, Green Line) Parking is available at a discount in the Giant parking garage on Park Road, NW.
Tickets: Single tickets are $32 on Thursday, and Sunday; $36 Friday and Saturday. Tickets for students, senior citizens (65+) and military are $20 (Thurs/Sun) and $26 (Fri/Sat). Additional discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.
Info and Reservations: 202-234-7174, (800) 494-TIXS or visit the website.