By Geary Danihy
Lydia, a new play by Octavio Solis that recently opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is ostensibly about the trials and tribulations of a dysfunctional Mexican-American family living in El Paso in the early 1970s, but its real topic is orgasms: orgasms delayed and orgasms frustrated, liberating orgasms and illicit orgasms. If that’s your thing, then Lydia’s the play for you.
Armando Durán as Claudio and Onahoua Rodriguez as Ceci in the east coast premiere of Lydia by Octavio Solis, directed by Juliette Carrillo, at Yale Repertory Theatre, February 6-28, 2009.
Photo © Carol Rosegg, 2009.
The play’s entire action takes place in the living room of the Flores family, a room that, at the start of the play, is the image of domestic untidiness. Stage center rests a blue mattress that is the domain of Ceci (Onahoua Rodriguez), the Flores’ teenage daughter who suffered severe brain damage as the result of a car accident that occurred several days before her fifteenth birthday.
The mattress’s central position in the set designed by Andrew Boyce is a visual metaphor for the place Ceci’s condition holds in the family’s psyche, for it is the emotional stick that has beaten her family into the condition it finds itself.
Ceci’s mother, Rosa (Catalina Maynard), has turned to born-again religion for release and comfort; Claudio (Armando Durán), Ceci’s abusive father, drowns his sorrow in alcohol (pay special attention to where his beer can pop-top tabs fall); Rene (Tony Sancho), Ceci’s older brother, hides his grief behind macho anger while Ceci’s younger brother, Misha (Carlo Albán) finds comfort in writing poetry; and Ceci’s cousin, Alvaro (Christian Barillas) has joined the Army to find redemption in Viet Nam. Into this heady mix comes Lydia (Stephanie Beatriz), an illegal immigrant hired by Rosa as a housemaid, a mojada Mary Poppins who introduces more than a touch of magic realism.
Ceci also performs the function of the drama’s narrator, for she shifts from a nearly inarticulate, spasm-wracked invalid to a sprightly teenager in the flash of an eye. The first few transformations, deftly accomplished by the engaging, talented Rodriguez, are riveting, but the device soon grows a bit old and with each repeated twitch into twirl her magic dissipates, and with each scene so does the magic of the play.
The problem is that Solis doesn’t focus the audience’s attention, but rather plays out multiple angst-filled story lines as each character writhes in his or her own special hell. Should we invest our emotional chips in Rosa or in Ceci? Will we experience catharsis by focusing on Misha and his relationship with his father, or on Rene and Alvaro’s attempt to resolve their unspoken needs?
Adding to the confusion is Lydia’s other-worldly ability to translate Ceci’s hisses and squawks, an ability that fuels the play’s strained, disturbing final scenes. Will Lydia’s somewhat supernatural connection to Ceci flower into some meaningful revelation? Are they sisters in tragedy? Sadly, no, for the play is a bait-and-switch scheme: entice with the offer of tragedy and provide the merely tragic. What all of this comes down to is each character’s need to find sexual release.
To delineate these needs would be to reveal too much, but suffice it to say that as the plot unfolds, as relationships are clarified and the truth of what happened on the night of the accident is revealed, it all adds up to less than the sum of its emotional parts, for there is nothing here that ultimately transcends the specifics of suffering.
One wonders what this fine cast might have been able to accomplish given material with greater depth. As it is, the actors do manage to create vivid, multi-dimensional characters in individual scenes that are often humorous, poignant or set ablaze as repressed emotions erupt. The dialogue is, at times, lyrical and director Juliette Carrillo’s staging, save for the opening of the second act, an exercise in excess born of a distrust of the audience’s ability to, say, conjure a forest from a branch and a bird, is creative.
Lydia aspires to be a major work and it certainly has the structure to be so. However, hiding inside the mansion is a tract house on a slab, and this is where the characters live out their tragic lives.
Lydia runs through Saturday, Feb. 28. For tickets or more information call 432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.
This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News.