American Dream Shattered in Lydia

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 20, 2011

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Oh, brother: Rene (Robert DaPonte, left) and Misha (Mário Canavarro) arguing in Lydia.

Amaryllis Theatre Company had a major disappointment this season with the dreary Dublin Carol, but with Lydia the company shows it is capable of producing a penetrating drama.

One of the nation’s most original but least known playwrights, Octavio Solis focuses his plays on the Mexican-American experience. Lydia, though, is a departure from his earlier, intensely poetic work (El Paso Blue), which was dominated by a sort of magical realism. Lydia is by far Solis’ most realistic and accessible play. (And is a reminder that while the Philadelphia theater community prides itself on its diversity, there is a woeful lack of productions exploring Latino culture).

Recalling the work of Tennessee Williams and especially Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, Solis’ Lydia reveals the dark side of the American Dream and the disillusionment that accompanies a lifetime of unrealized expectations.

The story takes place entirely in the Flores family home in 1970s El Paso, Texas (which happens to be Solis’ hometown). There’s nothing unusual about the home—except that a bed that sits in the middle of the living room is occupied by 17-year-old Ceci (the excellent Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly), who was severely injured in a car accident two years earlier. Ceci’s injuries have left her in a vegetative state, and she requires constant attention. But on the inside, she has all the yearnings of a typical teenager. “I want to be wanted” she says, turning to the audience and giving voice to her inner thoughts. “I want to be fucked.”

Since the accident, Ceci is cared for by her mother Rosa (Johanna Carden in a spectacular performance) and her loving 16-year-old brother Misha (newcomer Mario Canavarro). There is an angry elder brother, Rene (Robert Daponte), who spends most of his time bashing the local gay population. The family’s omnipotent head is father Claudio (Joe Guzman in a subtly effective portrayal). A bitter man battered by life’s disappointments, Claudio rules the house through physical intimidation and stern indifference.

When Rosa returns to work, the family hires a maid named Lydia (the engaging Anjoli Santiago) to look after Ceci. A young woman of unusual insight, Lydia has the ability to communicate with Ceci. The family adores her (in more ways than one) and like a Mexican Mary Poppins she brings a sense of harmony to the household.

But the harmony is only temporary. Haunting the play is the question of what exactly occurred on the night of the accident. It is a mystery that must be resolved, but the answer comes at tremendous cost.

The acting is exceptional, particularly the performances of Guzman and Carden. Although he is physically abusive, Guzman avoids portraying Claudio as the typical macho male. In Guzman’s thoughtful performance, Claudio’s rage stems not from anger but fear. “This country robs your soul,” he tells Lydia, and in a tender moment he reveals that his only wish for his children is “peace of mind.” Carden is equally impressive, portraying Rosa as a determined, courageous woman whom we greatly admire. But she is also a woman of devoted faith, and when that faith is questioned she lashes out in ways that are both surprising and deeply troubling.

The world Solis presents in Lydia is dominated by borders. There is the obvious border between Mexico and America, but Solis also explores the divide between reality and magic, gay and straight, men and women, children and parents, legal and illegal, and life and death. Most of these borders are strictly enforced and should you dare cross over there is no turning back.

Director Josette Todara keeps the story grounded in reality, and her patient pacing allows us to empathize with the characters. When the final secret is revealed in the play’s shattering climax, we are simultaneously shocked, saddened and profoundly moved.

Through April 23. $10. The Playground at the Adrienne. 2030 Sansom St. 267.273.9823.

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