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Latino Chicago Theater

With the black-comic bluntness of a political cartoon and the eerie ambiguity of a dream, Latino Chicago’s midwest premiere of Jose Rivera’s Each Day Dies With Sleep is haunting, funny, and disquieting theatrical poetry. It’s by no means a masterwork; Rivera, who’s only recently reaffirmed his commitment to the stage after several years in Norman Lear’s television laugh factory, is still developing as a serious playwright, and this low-budget staging simmers with potential that never actually comes to a boil. But even so, it captures the singular, bracing voice of a talented and provocative young writer.

As in The Promise, seen earlier this fall at Lifeline Theatre, Rivera uses a specific Latino-American sensibility as the vantage point from which to display a universal vision. Blurring the line between the “magic realist” style of some modern South American writers, European absurdism and surrealism, and the crude camp ridiculousness of such satirists as novelist William S. Burroughs, playwright Charles Ludlam, and filmmaker John Waters, Rivera exaggerates the grim realities of life in the Puerto Rican underclass to simultaneously comic and horrific effect. Each Day Dies With Sleep is filled with references to houses overrun with squalling brats and dangerously hungry, disease-carrying animals; to women reduced to the most basic functions of housekeepers and whores by macho men who take pride in their ability to spawn babies and then ignore them; to poverty, alcoholism, incest, child abuse, adultery, and murder; and to an unhealthily jumbled spirituality tenuously rooted in both Christianity and pagan occultism that profanes both systems. But Rivera’s Long Island Puerto Ricans, like John Waters’s white Baltimore bohemians, embody a corruption unconfined to any particular class or race or religion.

Each Day Dies With Sleep begins and ends with a lone woman. She is Nelly, the middle daughter of 21 children, and her struggle for independence is the crux of the play. Her life is dominated by two men: her father Augie, a malevolent cockroach of a man determined to keep her subjugated at all costs, and her husband Johnny, a vain weakling whose beauty and innocence are both his blessing and his curse. Having already given Nelly a pack of nieces and nephews by her older sisters–“What can I say? I love this family,” he confesses–he woos Nelly, whom he finds crawling around on all fours and speaking in baby talk. In his arms, her child’s squeak turns into a low, sexy purr; and her ambition–to find a space, and a life, “not covered by members of my big family or animal droppings”–fills him with the illusion of purpose. With money won from the lottery after Nelly prophetically dreams the winning numbers, the newlyweds head off to California, where a tree growing in the middle of their living room sprouts aphrodisiac oranges. There they open up a celebrity garage (“We’ve jump-started Marlon Brando and realigned Jack Nicholson,” Nelly gushes at one point). But the sense of security and pride that Nelly finds in the old-fashioned work ethic eludes Johnny, who’d much rather be a male model and a rock singer; Johnny also harbors a yen for Nelly’s younger sister Gloria and dreams of the day she “turns legal.”

Nelly’s gift for prophecy is really a gift for making her own dreams come true; an angry threat hurled at her hateful father haunts her after he is hit by a car and paralyzed. Filled with guilt, Nelly brings Augie to California to live with her and Johnny; there, Augie practices some potent magic in an effort to kill the young man who has taken his daughter away. Like all bad magic, Augie’s spell destroys him as well as his victim; Nelly is left struggling with the urge she has to get back on her hands and knees and gurgle like an infant. How she resists that urge constitutes the play’s final image, as strange a mixture of triumph and loss as anything I’ve seen on a stage.

Rivera’s script calls for many effects that Latino Chicago’s production eschews: projected slides that evoke Nelly’s visions of escape and disaster, outrageous sound effects representing the footsteps of children and animals that thunder through Nelly’s family home, bursts of lighting to suggest the storms and explosions that wreck Nelly and Johnny’s hard-won happiness. This is a quiet, intimate production; where the script calls for a horde of animal cries, for instance, sound designer Terry Nelson gives us one lonely dog barking (still a chilling effect in the play’s context, as Augie heads into a household overrun by ravenous creatures). In lieu of stagecraft, director Patrick Kerwin concentrates on his three actors; though their performances (and the production as a whole) lack the heightened theatricality that I think Rivera intended, their interaction and emotional changes are clean, clear, and honest all the way through.

Laura Ceron is especially affecting as Nelly–strong and vulnerable as she progresses from goofy infantilism (reminiscent not only of Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann character but of Edith Massey’s “egg lady” in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos) to voluptuous witch to bright-eyed yuppie businesswoman to gun-toting avenger to emotionally purged survivor, fiercely determined to walk erect at any cost. She’s ably supported by Frankie Davila, cunning and feral as Augie, and Noah Navar, gracefully endearing as the feckless Johnny; by Joel Klaff’s dark, cartoonishly skewed set and clever costumes (ranging from a pink-and-white party dress to a too-tight rhinestone-studded blue-jean outfit); and by Rivera’s bracing, poetically charged language.