Latino Chicago Theater Company

at the Firehouse

Miriam’s Flowers begins, literally, with a scream. It comes after several minutes of mellow preshow music, mostly early-70s disco, right on the beat, just when we expect a gleeful falsetto trill from the singer. Suddenly the room is dark and a teenage girl awakens abruptly from a bad dream, to a night silent but for the occasional rattle of a passing IRT train. Her cry is a sound to chill the blood, and it tells us in no uncertain terms, even though the girl’s mother comes to soothe her, that all is not well with the Nieves family.

For some, the simple circumstance of being Puerto Rican and living in the South Bronx in the mid-70s might be reason enough to despair. Miriam’s family is not atypical, no more dysfunctional than any other. As a matter of fact, her mother’s boyfriend, Nando Morales, is an unusually kind and devoted consort, with a steady job at the Post Office and a sensual appetite guaranteed to please Delfina, a young widow. The potential for competition between Delfina and her daughter and the potential for incest between Nando and Miriam are no more pronounced than in any other family so closely quartered. The banter between Miriam and her six-year-old brother, Puli, is no more precocious than between any other ghetto-raised children. But when Puli is killed–hit by a train after chasing his baseball onto the tracks–the precariously balanced stability of these relationships is upset, never to be righted.

Miriam’s Flowers is not just another kitchen-sink melodrama of squalid urban life, however. Playwright Migdalia Cruz achieves the universal through description of the specific, and arrives at the explicit by way of the enigmatic. Cruz tells her story in the mosaic narrative style popularized by Maria Irene Fornes, threading the episodic segments together with several recurring motifs. There’s the notion of transcendental suffering, personified by the saints whose shrines and statues pervade the culture. There’s sweetness, the sweetness of body fluids and of the residue clinging to cockroach feet. Ice cream wrapped around a Popsicle stick reminds Nando of his lady (“Nieves” means “snows”); he mistakes ice cream melted on the sidewalk for dog shit. There’s the parakeet Nando buys Delfina for her birthday, and the pigeons she uses to make soup. (“In Puerto Rico,” she says, “we had to travel to the hills to catch pigeons–here in New York, they come right to us!”) Running through these motifs like a basso ostinato are certain repeated sounds: the ominous clatter of the train, the syrupy wail of Eddie Palmieri ballads, the artificial jubilation of the Jackson Five.

The impression given by Miriam’s Flowers is of a world in chaos. Though theoretically the church provides an anchor in the midst of this disorder, the comfort of an institution founded on martyrdom can take some bizarre turns. Miriam responds to her brother’s death by immersing herself in a debasing promiscuity, seducing Enrique, the owner of the drugstore, in return for razor blades. These she uses to carve bloody flowers into her arms, imitating the allegedly violet-scented wounds of the saints. Delfina’s slow disintegration is far worse–and irreversible. She soaks in the bathtub for hours, gin bottle in hand, her fate as perversely logical in this illogical world as Miriam’s. Nando, shunned by Delfina and driven from the house by Miriam, can only watch helplessly. Enrique, though he loves and pities Miriam, is likewise powerless.

A play constructed almost entirely upon imagery requires strong and precise production images if the audience is not to get lost in the mysticism. In a universe with no conventional signposts, any object, any word, any gesture can become suddenly significant. The meticulously detailed stage environment created by the technical team of Patrick Kerwin, Joel Klaff, Michelle Banks, and Michael Ramirez answers the need for something concrete. Even the smallest touches–the dozens of flickering votive candles, the skin-crawlingly real blood that flows from under the razor blades–take on an eerie power because they’re so exactly ordinary. (Only a patently fake pigeon mars the verisimilitude.) The designers’ efficient use of space is also noteworthy: onto the 22-by-20-foot stage they’ve managed to pack a living room with sofa, bedroom with workable window, kitchen with stove, bathroom with tub, storefront sidewalk, graveyard, sanctuary, and chapel–and there’s still room for throwing baseballs, garbage, and pails of water.

Under the sure direction of Bill Payne, the Latino Chicago cast continues the atmosphere of stifled turbulence. Consuelo Allen as the doomed Delfina delivers a performance of multifaceted brilliance (look for this one to win her the Jeff citation that last year’s The Quintessential Image didn’t). Justina Machado, making her debut with Latino Chicago Theater Company in the role of Miriam, conveys an adolescent’s confusion of flesh and spirit and the strange manifestations of that confusion. As the men who can only watch, love, and obey, Frankie Davila as Nando and Felipe Comacho as Enrique deliver nicely underplayed performances all the more moving for their restraint. The 18-year-old Daniel Sanchez makes Puli a mercurial embodiment of hope and optimism, the kind of boy whose untimely passing might well inspire tragic events.

Miriam’s Flowers is not a well-made play in the way that, say, an Ibsen play is. But through her charismatic narration, Cruz has contrived a tale both familiar and foreign, mundane and mysterious–a tale to haunt our “rational” sensibilities and resonate in our memories for a long time to come.