Play By: Evelina Fernandez
At: The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-697-3830 or TheDenTheatre.com; $25-$35. Runs through: Oct. 27
Nostalgia and harsh reality vie for dominance in Teatro Vista's Midwest premiere of Hope: Part II of A Mexican Trilogy, now playing as part of Destinos, the Third Annual Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.
Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis and leading into the last day of Kennedy's presidency, the play follows the Morales family as the members croon sweet love songs of the era while preparing for possible nuclear war and the more personal destruction of their nuclear family.
Gina ( Ayssette Munoz ) is the cynical eldest daughter of hard-working Elena ( Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel ) and shiftless, unfaithful Charlie ( Eddie Martinez ). While younger sister Betty ( Janyce Caraballo ) daydreams about romantic phone conversations with JFK, and her brothers Johnny ( Nick Mayes ) and Bobby ( Joaquin Rodarte ) fight over who between them is the bigger man, Gina puts all her energy into keeping a clear head and steering clear of Rudy ( Tommy Rivera-Vega ), a newly enlisted soldier who wants to build a life with her. Elena tries to make ends meet while Charlie skips out on bills and family responsibilities while his brother, Enrique ( Victor Marana ), lends a supportive ear and potentially more.
Fernandez's script has the ring of real-life relationship conflicts, particularly when the siblings fight amongst themselves. Flights of fancy and bursts of torch songs fill out the world of the play, and co-directors Ricardo Gutierrez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce keep the energy high, calling on the actors to fully embrace the musical half of the show, which conflicts with Erin Peake's apocalyptic projection footage of 1960s duck-and-cover drills. During such moments of contrast, the production calls to mind flashpoints of cultural and political transformation.
However, the production loses steam in longer scenes when the characters have confrontations about faithfulness and pragmatism. Fernandez has a good ear for squabbling, but struggles to lift the dialogue beyond its first level when ultimatums are delivered and the stakes are supposed to raise. Gonzalez-Cadel and Marana are tender together, almost as sweet as Muñoz and Rivera-Vega are, but the cast's sincerity cannot generate enough tension to motivate an audience to worry about what might happen next during this turbulent time. The audience I attended with deeply enjoyed themselves, and as a white woman, I am certain to be missing cultural context and lived experiences specific to this Mexican-American family. But the breeziness onstage, coupled with a lack of surprise, may undermine Teatro Vista's boisterous telling of a conflicted moment.