Writers, one could argue, wield the most power out of any of us, since they build and destroy worlds with the flip of a pencil, the turn of a new idea. In Sybil R. Williams’s new play for the In Series, Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral speaks more humbly of her craft. “The people walking on the road, they leave me their stories,” she murmurs, “and I pick them up where they fell.”
Played with a soft intensity by Jenifer Belle Deal, Mistral seems to serve less as our host and more as a fellow observer, sharing in a coolheaded appreciation of the retrospective that unfolds onstage.
Searching for Gabriela achieves a modest solidity despite the fact that it’s not, by most theatrical standards, engaging. In fact it’s hardly a play at all — more an enhanced poetry reading than a vehicle for dramatic plot and conflict. The ensemble, directed by Abel López, takes us from chapter to chapter of Mistral’s life (the poet lived from 1889 to 1957), and snippets of biography and memoir float to the surface of a river of song and poetry.
It quickly becomes clear that virtually nothing will occur in the present tense. The guiding action of the piece is literary curiosity — the act of looking back and paying tribute to an artist who, despite receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945, lives in relative obscurity today. But it’s this sense of appreciation — this unflagging focus on an admirable woman — that will draw poetry lovers to Searching for Gabriela. Mistral’s writing has a marvelous generosity to it, an innate civic warmth that speaks for the silent and forgotten with an elegance that also retains a sense of humility and wonderment.
The driving heart of this piece is the laughter of youth, as the decades Mistral spent teaching in Chile came to inform her best-loved poems about children and motherhood. A chorus of three feminine figures (Monalisa Arias, Karen Morales, and Lorena Sabogal, all playing “Gabriela’s Memories”) occupy the streams of Mistral’s thought and, more literally, help to fill Source’s cozy stage with bodies. As the poet recalls the kids from the rural schools at which she taught for many years, the three women around her brim with youth, giggling, skipping, and singing. When the memories grow political, highlighting an ambassadorial trip to America, the women also come to speak with the sad sobriety of women carrying more years — and just as many more hopes and dreams — than they did as daughters.
It’s a playing space suited for more fun and exploration than the actors end up giving it: various boxes covered in newsprint, simple sketches on the walls, and an upright piano played on Friday by José Cáceres (on Saturday his role passed to Artistic Director Carla Hübner, herself a Chilean, for the rest of the run). Colorful washes of light soak the space in warm pastels, all shades of peach and aqua blue. At choice moments, guitar and drum add to the soundscape, helping to lift the storytelling, just a little, out of mere recital mode.
Full transcendence never quite arrives, however, and the piece suffers for playing in the key of rosy reverie. Every moment is well researched, but the result often feels academic, removed from the emotional punches that spurred Mistral through her remarkable life. A troubling scene telling of her teenage son’s suicide provides Deal the chance to do some real acting, but otherwise Mistral’s dilemmas are mostly cerebral. How does the poet translate the impulses of the heart? How to capture pain and loss on paper? Potent rhetoric for the conscientious artists in the house, but when a theatre audience can close their eyes for scenes at a time, listen, and have the same experience as if they were watching, it’s clear the questions posed aren’t especially active ones for the stage.
Even so, Searching for Gabriela finds some lovely moments throughout, and the group conquers the challenges of bilingual performance with ease. Efforts to satisfy in both Spanish and English might have risked some redundancy, but Williams’ own poetic sensibility and the impassioned charm of the women onstage help to focus and distill the urge to translate. English speakers won’t get every word in the show, but the songs in Spanish are heartfelt wholes that seem likely to please listeners of all languages. As singer Cecilia Esquivel steps in between songs, soothing the poet’s melancholy, it’s easy to get swept up in “Rio, Rio” and its delicious rolling R’s. By the end, Mistral’s power isn’t in the making and destroying of worlds – all her magic springs from the river of daily life.
Searching for Gabriela
Written by Sybil R. Williams
Directed by Abel López
Produced by The In Series
Reviewed by Hunter Styles