So just who is Lydia?
In Octavio Solis’ fascinating and exasperating play “Lydia,” set in the 1970s, the title character is a Mexican maid who has slipped across the border into El Paso, Texas. There she finds a job in a dysfunctional household. (Which is putting it mildly. The Flores family is better described as cataclysmically broken.) Most apparent of their woes is the teenage daughter of the family, Ceci, who is brain-damaged after an accident and unable to care for herself. From early on, through the play’s moody shifts in tone and Ceci’s periodic transformations from vegetative state to cogent narrator, the play appears to be more than straightforward realism. Things happen that can’t quite be explained rationally.
And thus, in a work of magical realism, there are fair questions here to ask: Is Lydia simply a maid imbued with a dramatic gift of empathy? Or is she more than a mere mortal, some magical or extraordinary being — a Latinx Mary Poppins, if you will — whose role in the universe is to hone in on each family member’s deepest psychological wounds, gain their confidence and set things right?
The new Fresno State production of “Lydia,” which continues through Saturday, March 24, is a meaningful and provocative work to be lauded for its intensity. It is a disturbing play, particularly in the final moments, and it requires in its audience an openness to being challenged. The dominant themes are Mexican-American identity, the strength (and flaws) of family, and challenging assumptions about physical disabilities, and there’s more than enough there to pack a wallop. But Solis also carves out a decidedly darker depiction of the human psyche — extremely dark — and it can be a lot to take in.
Director Gina Sandí-Díaz, who is in her first year of teaching at the university, is also Fresno State’s first Latinx theatre specialist. Bringing “Lydia” — which was acclaimed for its piercing and disturbing promise when it premiered in 2008 at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts — is by itself a significant act. Sandi-Diaz and a dedicated cast deliver an experience that, while uneven, is a milestone for the theater program.
The three women characters in the play are each intriguing, and it is through them that Solis’ words can turn poetic. Lydia herself, played with a sly, strong warmth by Ruby Arreguin, remains tantalizingly opaque throughout. (I couldn’t help but think of the Mary Poppins analogy when we watch her arrival at the Flores household, simple suitcase in hand, in dramatic silhouette as she approaches the family’s front door; all she’s missing is a parasol and a flywire.) Rosa (Dalicia Torrecillas), the mother, is at first glance a strong and commanding matriarch — “I see everything in this house,” she declares — but as events progress, she loses that aura of invincibility.
And Ceci (Kenia Morales), the disabled daughter — by far the toughest role — is full of mystery and passion, shifting between grunts and drooling to a well-spoken, intensely lyrical desire.
The men in the family tend to be more passive. They react to the action instead of drive it. Misha (Jacob Gonzalez), the youngest brother, lives in fear of his abusive father, Claudio (Daniel Serrano). His older brother, Rene (Rodolfo Robles Cruz), struggles violently with a tragic secret. His cousin, Alvaro (Andres Navarrette), has taken assimilation to a new level: He’s gone from Vietnam War vet to working for the border patrol.
I was especially impressed with the performances of Arreguin, Cruz and Navarette, who each are able to find something wrenching and palpably real within their characters.
Sandí-Díaz’s thoughtful direction is often effective, particularly as the “mystery” of the play deepens. And it’s clear that she’s worked to great effect with these student actors to craft an emotionally pungent experience. (The diction of some of the actors was muddled on opening night.) My major quibble is that the magical realism elements don’t seem to flow gracefully into the more realistic elements, and vice versa. There’s something clunky about the transitions between the two. The creative team (lights by Regina Harris, costumes by Stephanie Bradshaw, scenic design by Jeff Hunter) is effective and in sync, but needed something more unifying in terms of overall direction. (There was an annoying buzz throughout the production on opening night, which was distracting.)
I also had a few issues with the script.
The play is elegantly written — the mother’s beauty is described as slowly leaving her and now gathers around her ankles “like used panthose” — but Solis gets bogged down in his own poetry, and at 150 minutes, it’s just too long. Lydia is a purposefully murky character, but one important plot twist involving her sexuality was inexplicable to me. (It’s one of those things that seems stuck in just to make the storyline turn a certain way later on.) I wasn’t expecting an authoritative answer to the question “Who is Lydia?” Perhaps, though, I wanted a few more clues.
And the ending is, well, certain to cause some discussion afterward. Does it truly serve the story or its characters? Or is it a playwright’s gambit to provoke shock and attention? I can see how arguments could go either way. I wonder if this production’s staging (and how I felt that the magical realism wasn’t incorporated as effectively as it could be) colored my perception. But I think I come down on the side of the grandstanding-playwright side of things.
Still, this is what theater can do: Cause a stir. Make waves. Cross the border, perhaps, of propriety. I’m sure you’ll agree that nothing quite like “Lydia” has been seen at Fresno State before. And that’s a good thing.
“Lydia,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 21 through Saturday, March 24, Dennis & Cheryl Woods Theatre, Fresno State. Tickets are $17 general, $15 seniors, $10 students.
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