T
his past Monday, April 30, marked 41 years since the first demonstration by
the women who became known as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. On that day
in 1977 a dozen or so of them assembled in the square across from
Argentina’s pink version of the White House to bear witness on behalf of
their children—journalists, students, activists, the hapless—who’d been
“disappeared” by the military dictatorship then in power. The Madres
marched every Thursday afternoon thereafter, in increasing numbers,
demanding answers and justice. With the rightist “dirty war” going on
around them, their outcry constituted an act of defiance as crazy brave as
that of the man who stopped the tank column in Tiannanmen Square. Yet the
mothers were more effective than Tank Man in the long run, obtaining
information on many of the estimated 30,000 disappeared, helping put about
700 of the perpetrators in prison, and even identifying a few of their
grandchildren who’d been handed over to military families as newborns,
their genetic mothers having been executed after giving birth.

Stephanie Alison Walker‘s The Madres is effective in the long run
too. Presented by Teatro Vista as part of a rolling world premiere also
involving theater companies in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Austin, this
tale of the dirty war has a powerful second act. But in Ricardo Gutiérrez‘s
staging, the problem is getting through the first.

The Madres
puts us in the Buenos Aires apartment shared by Josephina, a sixtysomething
widow, and her 45-year-old daughter, Carolina, whose husband has walked out
on her. They’ve got solid Catholic, conservative bona fides, just like the
generals of the junta, but it’s 1978 and no one is really safe. Carolina’s
pregnant daughter, Belén, has gone missing along with her new husband,
Agustin.

While Josephina insists on maintaining her cover story that the young
couple are merely off traveling in Europe, Carolina has taken to showing up
at the Plaza de Mayo protests and wearing the Madres’ white head scarf. Her
actions haven’t gone unnoticed, either. Not only is their apartment being
staked out by a lady who sits in her car and knits all day, but Josephina
receives suspiciously timed visits from two old acquaintances—a
medialuna-loving Jesuit padre named Juan, whom she hadn’t seen in five
years, and Diego, who had a crush on Belén when they were growing up
together and everyone knew him as Diegito. Both men serve the junta now.
Both work at the School of Navy Mechanics, the innocuously named
neoclassical building that became torture central during the dirty war.
Both are ominously friendly.

What are Josephina and Carolina to do? Why, of course they decide to throw
Belén a baby shower.

It’s a transcendent bit of creative desperation, an absurd gesture worthy
of Ionesco, and the ideal act of political theater for two conventional
women who can no longer stand doing nothing though they know that their
only safety consists in maintaining the lie of normality. It’s subversive
yet also magical, like lighting a candle to the Virgin. And it just might
work, either on that spiritual plane where wishes are heard in heaven or on
the awful real one where hints are addressed to government lackeys. The
idea, for Josephina and Carolina, is that if they build their party Belén
will come.

This great conceit is the centerpiece of act two, and it leads to some
devastating moments—particularly those involving Lorena Diaz, profoundly
committed as Carolina, and Ilse Zacharias, radiant as Belén. But neither
Gutiérrez nor his Josephina, Ivonne Coll, seem to have a handle on how to
make dramatic sense of the long stretch that must lead us to those moments.
The show pulls toward naturalism, and, for all I know, that may be the
playwright’s preference. I’d argue, though, that The Madres has
more in common with I Love Lucy than, say, Jane the Virgin, on which Coll has a recurring role.
Paradoxically, despite the horror of the situation, it needs an antic comic
energy, a sense of the women having come to the end of their rope and let
go, that would justify their mystic/ridiculous/hail-Mary party.

With the exception of some hints from Diaz, there’s nothing like that here.
Worse, Coll’s performance on opening night was frustratingly discursive, as
if she hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with Josephina (or, more to the point,
Josephina’s lines). The effect was to slow the momentum toward act two
still further. You end up wishing for an entire play worthy of this one’s
best ideas.   v