Ghosts

La Jollas Adoration of the Old Woman

Photo by J.T. MacmillanCall me easily impressed, but any play that begins with a 100-year-old woman lying in bed and referring to her cunt as a portal to hell has already gone a long way toward convincing me of its literary and artistic merits.

There is more—much, much more—to Los Angeles-based playwright José Rivera's new play, Adoration of the Old Woman. But the play's internal engine—its life and humor and earthiness—is driven by the shockingly profane, deeply poetic words of this spiritual old woman. Doña Belen may be the most fascinating character in Rivera's fertile oeuvre, but in the second act, she's exiled to the periphery, turning this play from a delicately balanced examination of personal and political self-determination into a political soap opera.

The political soap opera works; Rivera is a talented writer, his political rhetoric engaging and the romantic turmoil believable. But a little more Doña Belen (and the awesome actress playing her, Ivonne Coll) would go a long way toward making Rivera's great play greater.

Rivera has long been considered one of the most interesting voices in contemporary theater, too often marginalized by critics who describe him as "one of America's foremost Latino playwrights." He's a writer, an American writer, and that's all that matters; I'm not sure the word "American" is even that important. Yes, his plays are infused with the flavor we've come to associate with Latin writing—the rich imagery and lyricism of Federico García Lorca, the earthy sensuality and surrealism of Gabriel García Márquez. But Rivera's concerns are universal. His characters may be brown-skinned, but his subject is the human soul.

Adoration of the Old Womenis Rivera's most overtly political play yet. It's a work that combines Rivera's heightened sense of language and visually rich dreamscapes with a deeply felt probing of Puerto Rican independence. It's part ghost story, part political debate. It's magical realism meets a Puerto Rican Crossfire.

But ultimately this is a coming-of-age tale for two women—and for a nation. The nation is Puerto Rico; the women are the aforementioned Doña Belen and her 17-year-old great granddaughter, Vanessa, a smart-ass, street-savvy chica from Paterson, New Jersey, shipped off to the land of her ancestors as punishment for her rebellious ways.

Vanessa is bright. She has overachieved all her life but has grown weary of being her family's lottery ticket, the child who will "succeed" and pull her family out of poverty. But she doesn't want to be in Puerto Rico, a place of tarantulas and cows rotting in fields. And she doesn't want to live with an old woman who can't speak English, doesn't know what a cell phone is and whose cultural venue of choice is a beaten-up TV on which she watches reruns of Bonanza.

But Vanessa (an aptly arrogant but wounded Tamara Mello) soon becomes infatuated with her grandmother's saintly, if profane nature, and her eccentricities—including her belief that the ghost of a woman who once slept with her long-dead husband (a sultry if somewhat undeveloped Marisol Padilla Sanchez) inhabits the left side of her bed. She also becomes enamored of the pulse and breath of the land, from the tropical heat and nightly rainstorms to the constant singing of the coqui, singing tree frogs whose legendary biology (remove them from their native Puerto Rico and they will fall silent) is a fitting metaphor for one of Rivera's chief concerns—the danger of people losing their voice through globalization.

Vanessa, who is struggling to find herself, also finds that she is in the crosshairs of a nation's struggle to chart its own course. The play is set in the "near-future," when a vote over Puerto Rico's future is to be cast. There are three choices: stay in the twilight zone of American commonwealth, where senators from Mississippi have more say over Puerto Rico than Puerto Ricans; statehood; or full independence.

Rivera has no time for commonwealth status, but he spends a great deal of energy laying out the sides for statehood and independence (at times, it's too much energy, with the play's action stalling in favor of soapboxing—a violation of the No. 1 rule in art: show don't tell). The debate is delivered through the characters of two men who are both turned on by Vanessa and who want her on their respective sides. Ismael (a likeable if smug Gary Perez) is an Old Glory-waving realtor, a pragmatist who sees in statehood Puerto Rico's shot at joining the 21st Century. Cheo (a sensitive and fiery John Ortiz) wants independence for all the reasons that a left-leaning intellectual would: the right of a people to chart their own course, to keep their language and culture—the right, finally, to stay Puerto Rican.

If you're wondering why Doña Belen hasn't been mentioned in a while, you should. Though she is the play's most promising character, and though Rivera seems to want his story of youthful and national self-determination to mirror Doña Belen's journey—reconciling a secret guilt she has carried for decades—her story all but disappears, resurrected almost as a postscript in the final scene.

It's a relatively minor problem in an otherwise gripping scene. In a choice that mirrors the public debate Rivera presents so skillfully, Vanessa has to decide whether to live with ghosts or to move on and live a full life. Can a people—can people—be so mired in the past, so respectful of the dead, so conscious of shadows, that they refuse to step into the present? In the wake of the anniversary of Sept. 11, it's a question with obvious resonance.

Vanessa makes her decision, and if Rivera never really seems to make his—the decision about Puerto Rican self-determination—he has left us with the evidence we need to make one for ourselves. And in that he fulfills what the physician-turned-playwright Anton Chekov said is the writer's chief responsibility: not providing a cure, but correctly diagnosing the problem.

Adoration of the Old Woman at La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, (858) 550-1010. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Oct. 20. $39-$49; tickets for patrons under 30 available for $10 up to a week before performance; $12 rush tickets available after 7 p.m. on day of show.

Catch more Joel Beers on his radio program, Theater Rant, on KUCI- FM 88.9 Thursdays, 4-5 p.m.

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