El Nogalar at Fountain Theatre

You’ll get a sense of familiarity as this play unfolds. It’s intentional. El Nogalar is Spanish for pecan orchard and playwright Tanya Saracho has borrowed heavily from Chekhov’s iconic play about an aristocratic family’s efforts to save their own orchard.

But instead of cherries and early 20th Century Russia, we are in the border state of Nogales a century later, and dealing with the Mexican drug war, a war that exploded in the 1990s when the cartels, which had operated for decades in Mexico’s northern provinces, began to gain the kind of power that made them de facto rulers over vast expanses of sovereign territory.

Valeria (Isabelle Ortega) alone has kept the family estate running for fifteen years and is awaiting the return of her mother Maite (Yetta Gottesman) and her half-sister Anita (Diana Romo). The reunion is bittersweet as Valeria explains the current political climate and the dire effect it is having on the Hacienda el Nogalar.

Maite will have none of it. She remains in high spirits, oblivious to the ominous developments occurring just beyond the gates of her estate. Anita, too, can’t understand why things have changed since she was a little girl, but she is more receptive to her half-sister’s warnings.

The “mañas” (drug cartels) won’t stay outside the gates much longer, and unless the family pays them off, they will forfeit their home. Ignoring Valeria’s warnings, Maite does nothing and watches as they lose it all to their servant Lopez (Justin Huen), who’s quickly gaining acceptance into the world of the cartels.

Sanchez’s sexually charged text in English, Spanish, and Spanglish effectively suggests the family’s dilemma. Anita understands Spanish but cannot speak it; in this strange cross-border world, she is adrift. Where once the boundary berween English and Spanish-speaking worlds might have also marked a line between two cultures and two vastly different sets of economic reality, now in the violent trans-border world of the cartels the two cultures, the two languages blend together into a single malevolent underworld. What does it matter which tongue you speak when you are dealing with people who have come to take what isn’t theirs?

For people like Lopez or the housekeeper Dunia (Sabina Zuniga Varela), as it was for the Russian serfs in Chekhov’s drama, the socio-economic forces obliterating the old order present opportunity — opportunity they could miss out on entirely if they don’t act aggressively.

With one exception, Saracho has removed all men from her play. This isn’t the first time this has been done with a Chekov adaptation, but in this case, it works to its advantage rather than coming across as gimmicky. While the boys go out to play with toy guns, the women remain at home to tend to household necessities. Only, in this case, the matriarch Maite is so deeply rooted in denial she cannot or will not see that those play guns have been exchanged for real ones.

Director Laurie Woolery creates a deeply affecting universe that allows for the four talented actresses to bite into their roles. Unfortunately and perhaps because of the confines of the small stage at the Fountain Theatre, their performances at times seem restrained and some of the staging is awkward (especially for most of Huen’s monologues.) There are instances where you get the feeling that the actors want to break out and fill out the bigger-than-life roles that Saracho has created.

Still, they each manage to shine. Gottesman is perfectly suited to play the vivacious, matriarch Maite and Ortega is a comic delight when taking on the persona of the martyr. Valera is deliciously child-like and deceptive, while Romo’s not-quite petulant Anita is subtly layered. Huen is charming and sexy as he moves among the women, making it easy to believe why almost all of them have cast their eye on him at one point or another.

Performances through March 11 at The Fountain Theatre. For tickets and information, call (323) 633-1525 or please visit the theater’s website at www.FountainTheatre.com.

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