Spanish playwright Gracia Morales transports us into a dream world so magically real, so filled with painful love, you have to remind yourself to breathe. A dressmaker and her daughter allegorically undress slowly until the raw truth of their lives is exposed.
For Teatro de la Luna, this poetic play is more than an apt finale for the season’s theme, “Embracing Dreams.” Delightfully tragic and enjoyable to watch, this perfect storm is much more than a sensitive tribute to a loving daughter’s memory of her mother. An American premiere, As If It Were Tonight transcends time and cultures to show us how the spirits of the dead are kept alive by surrounding memories we cannot escape.
Artistic Director Mario Marcel is known for taking chances with a variety of styles. In 2008, in Eduardo Rovner’s hilarious romp, She Returned One Night (Volvi? una noche), a mother-son relationship was lightheartedly explored. In 2009, Emilio Carballido’s satire Two-Scented Rose (Rosa de dos Aromas) exposed the abandonment of unsupported wives and illegitimate children. In 2010, Dino Armas’ Heartstrings, delved into the taboo of familial incest. Now Marcel deserves high praise for skillfully set designing and directing this sharp-edged little gem, As If It Were Tonight (Como si fuera esta noche), a close-up of a mother-daughter, held by another kind of bond.
It is as if what we most want to forget, we cannot. So what is the hushed-up nightmare, the agreed-upon complicity in Latino life, not talked about in full daylight? Male machismo and domestic violence passed on from generation to generation. That’s what. Long after the perpetrator hangs his head in shame and repents, the rituals repeat even if the lives of the victims don’t. And Morales lays it all out like a musical composition.
Lights come up on a congested dressmaker’s shop, with a work table, an old-fashioned sewing machine, and overflowing baskets of fabric scraps. A diaphanous, bell-sleeved white dress—that could be for a wedding—stands spotlighted on a mannikin. The floor is painted like scattered pieces of cloth, embedded with photos, which we later learned are real-life photos from the actresses’ childhoods.
Immediately, it strikes us as odd that the mother, Mercedes (Andrea Aranguren) and her daughter, Clara (Karen Morales-Chacana) appear to be about the same age of thirty. But the disconnect between the two women soon becomes clear. Two distinct conversations in different spaces occur at the same time. As if in a modern apartment, Clara uses a cell phone and a tape recorder to talk to her lover, Raul. Simultaneously, Mercedes crawls on the floor, searching for a thimble in her shop, while calling for Clara as a child. The two women exist in separate realities—at least 20 years or a generation apart.
In plays by Morales, who also has won awards as a poet and an actress, every word adds meaning. We’re living in the mind of Clara who attempts to revive her past by revisiting memories of her deceased mother’s sewing shop. Through flashbacks and lyrical phrases both characters speak out directly in soliloquies; and the newspaper story about “…this new case of domestic violence” stitches together and clarifies. It’s a setup that works thanks to some impassioned acting.
Karen Morales-Chacana displays a riveting range of quicksilver emotions. In a startling moment, Clara exuberantly whirls around like an inebriated teenager in ecstasy. “I’ve fallen in love again,” she imagines telling her mother. For a split-second, Clara is a carefree, cartwheeling youngster full of flamboyance and sweeping gestures. But in a down-to-earth monologue of chilling reality, Chacana holds an overturned chair over her head and cowers like a terrified child and the mature Clara remembers her mother, “….walking backwards, aware now that he’s the stronger one, that the blows will start, that she’ll have to hide under the table or run to the bathroom and lock the door and hope he’ll tire himself out beating on the door….” And when Clara talks on a hand-held recorder to her lover, Raul, she is a vulnerable, frightened woman, who never confronts him face-to-face for a mysterious reason.
Andrea Aranguren as Mercedes, the anchor and nucleus of the family, projects a woman as sturdy as a tree. Aranguren conveys heart-rending stoicism as she recites the riff that echoes throughout the play about how one Friday out of three, Mercedes expects the pattern to repeat. Her husband has to show his companions that no one muzzles or leashes him. He gets drunk in the bar down the street. She goes to fetch him. She returns home alone and if the violence takes place later, the cover-up happens, like rearranging the books or putting clean sheets on the bed. Neighbors look the other way; no one reports it. And the cycle repeats.
Layers of lies gradually break down to expose the escalating violence within the reclusive, nuclear family. And Marcel does well by adding detailed business that expands the stage imagery and lightens the mood. The characters break the boundaries of reality and relate, as when Mercedes teaches Clara how to fold sheets. As the corners are brought four-square, the sheet becomes a symbolic prop of the mother and daughter growing more alike in their cover-up. Mother and daughter twist the sheet into a rope and dance together as if the rope is an umbilical cord.
Threatrical devices unite the randomness of memory, the free associative text: Both actresses have good singing voices and sing in unison the familiar Latino bolero, “Besame Mucho” or “Kiss Me A Lot”, that Clara recalls her mother singing. Near the climactic end there’s a haunting moment when the two women face each other and ballroom dance to this romantic music.
Another unifying element that stands out pegs the passage of time to Friday, July 25,th “as if it were tonight.” And all diverse patterns come together like beautiful patchwork, including the ultimate secret revealed by Clara on her tape to Raul. Could her life morph into another kind of cycle? Lighting design by Brian S. Allard subtly spotlights stage areas as twilight dims into blackout. But if we can bring domestic violence into full light, can’t we stop the inevitable?
In Spanish with English sur-titles.
As If It Were Tonight (Como si fuera esta noche)
By Spanish playwright Gracia Morales
Directed by Mario Marcel
Produced by Teatro de la Luna
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: One hour. No intermission. Post-show talk-backs on Friday nights.