OUR LADY OF THE UNDERPASS Teatro Vista at the Greenhouse Theater

In April 2005, a salt stain on the wall of the I-94 underpass at Fullerton struck passersby with its resemblance to the Virgin Mary. Flocks of the faithful and the curious came to see, and to pay tribute with flowers and candles—which drew international coverage and plenty of ridicule for Chicagoans. Just two months ago, Fox News reported, with veiled outrage, that the Virgin had been defiled by graffiti devil horns. The city subsequently painted her over.

Such magical/mundane apparitions—the Madonna has been spotted in places ranging from a grilled cheese sandwich in Florida to a pebble in New Zealand—are Rorschach tests for belief. Playwright Tanya Saracho saw the potential in Chicago’s miracle for a theatrical forum on faith, and the result is her sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving Our Lady of the Underpass.

The play was commissioned by the Goodman Theatre and received a reading there in 2006, but it’s been drastically revised for this vigorous production by Teatro Vista, where Saracho is a resident playwright. Based on interviews Saracho conducted at the Fullerton site, it consists mainly of monologues spoken by six characters talking to an invisible, silent interlocutor.

The monologues are separated by clever choral recitations that bring to mind different types of prayer—intercession, confession, petition. (“Please, Mary Mother of God, may toilet paper be on sale this week.”) But Saracho is no smart-ass, interested only in wringing laughs from the phenomenon. She takes imaginative leaps to fill out the characters, who represent a wide spectrum of faith and unbelief.

The details of the monologues are perfect, with the pauses and dropped sentences, the abrupt shifts and idiolects of real talk—so perfect that I kept wondering whether they’d been taken verbatim from the interviews. Saracho and director Sandra Marquez are both veteran actors, and their love of creating real people onstage, down to the smallest nuance, carries over to the cast, who seem like they could’ve been pulled in off the street.

All the people who materialize before us—Saracho’s apparitions—are unconsciously funny. The Virgin’s self-appointed guardian (Juan Gabriel Ruiz) proudly, shyly shows off the portrait he’s made of Mary cradling an aged Pope John Paul II, who’s wearing his mitre. A devout Mexican-American (Charin Alvarez) trashes Puerto Ricans. An abrasive yuppie (Chris Cantelmi ) declares he’s “not a jerk,” then lambastes Catholics, old people, women, and gays. Ready to take a bat to the unruly teenagers at the site, a fierce little Pole (Ilana Faust) exclaims, “People are trying to pray here!” A young, upwardly mobile Latina (Suzette Mayobre) treads an outrageously funny line between yuppie hysteria and stark anguish over the prospect that her perfect marriage won’t happen. And a timid middle-aged woman (Rosie Newton) dissolves in shame after uttering the word scrotum.

These are people you might see in the grocery store. But wanting to nail down whether they’re “real” or not is like trying to prove or debunk the miracle of the Fullerton apparition. It’s Saracho’s genius to keep questions of reality unresolved, to leave open the gap between an indisputable fact—a salt stain on a cement wall—and what human beings make of it: art, faith.

Saracho doesn’t pursue the stereotypical social or political agenda you might expect from a young Latina—she doesn’t plant her flag on the issue of faith. Her stand is to take no stand on this particular religious battle, a battle that might seem silly but suggests all that divides so many people in our country. She simply asks the viewer to reflect on what is and what might be.v


On September 1, 2004, militant separatists from nearby Chechnya occupied a grade school in Beslan, a town in the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania. It was the first day of classes—the “day of knowledge,” during which parents join the students and teachers to honor children and education and their importance to the future of the community. Demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from their homeland, the terrorists herded more than 1,000 hostages into the school gymnasium, where they killed the strongest men. The other captives—mostly women and children—were held in the hot, airless gym without food or water. On September 3, Russian forces stormed the school with tanks and rockets. More than 300 hostages were killed. In their determination to stamp out Chechen nationalism, the Russians had shown callous disregard for the innocents they were supposedly trying to save.

Stage Left Theatre’s compelling new production, The Day of Knowledge, is inspired by that shocking episode. But the play—a world-premiere collaboration between playwright David Alan Moore and director Drew Martin, Stage Left’s interim artistic directors—doesn’t dramatize the hostage crisis itself, or emphasize the scope of the carnage. It doesn’t focus on the underlying nationalist and religious aspects of the conflict (the majority of the Beslan community is Russian Orthodox, the hostage takers were Muslims). Nor does it examine how the incident allowed the Russian government to expand its powers in the name of national security, including suppressing dissent and solidifying control of the news media. Instead, it imagines the effects of a Beslan-style catastrophe on one fictional family, the Khamayevs.

Alexei and Borik Khamayev are brothers, living in an unnamed eastern European town 40 days after a school hostage crisis. Alexei (Cory Krebsbach), an ambulance driver, and his wife, Marina (Erin Myers), a doctor, have lost their son Misha in the slaughter. But Alexei has rescued another boy, apparently an orphan, and brought him home. The traumatized child is mute. Borik (Mark Pracht), a policeman, has been trying to discover the boy’s identity; his wife, Anna (Julie Cowden), a cook at the school, still suffers pain from the wound in her back where she was shot when the school was stormed.

All four adults are determined to control their feelings, put the horror behind them, and get on with their lives. “It’s been 40 days,” says Alexei. “We’ve had the funerals, we’ve lit our candles.” But well-educated, normally logical Marina is emotionally paralyzed. She resents Anna for surviving the attack that killed Misha and subconsciously uses the orphan as a substitute for her dead son. The situation is brought to a head by the arrival of an outsider, Irina Zyasikova (Amy Harmon), who believes that the rescued boy is the son of her dead sister. Like those who seized the school, she is a Muslim.

Observing and sometimes entering the family conflict are two mysterious figures. One, Serafima (Cat Dean), is a demented old woman who wanders around the village calling for “the child of lightning”—reflecting an age-old belief that a person killed by lightning is blessed in the eyes of God. The other is a seraph (Lauren Ashley Fisher), an angel in the form of a circus aerialist, who carries a burning rock with which she sears understanding into the other characters’ heads and healing emotion into their hearts.

The presence of these two symbolically charged figures makes for a stark contrast to the realistic interaction of the Khamayev family, and in a tiny space like Stage Left’s Wrigleyville storefront, such mystical elements could seem ludicrous and pretentious. What’s more, Serafima’s climactic transformation into the brutal, gun-wielding terrorist leader is a startling and risky theatrical flourish. But the gravity of Moore’s script, Cecil Averett’s haunting original score (which draws on eastern European folk idioms), the aerial choreography by Cat Dean in association with AMEBA Acrobatic & Aerial Dance, and the understated, honest performances under Martin’s direction illuminate the complex dynamics of survivor guilt and lend credibility to the play’s themes of spiritual healing and the continuity of life and death.v

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