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La Ruta
by Catey Sullivan

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By: Isaac Gomez

At: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: .; $20-$89, limited $15 student tickets online. Runs through: Jan. 27

For more than 20 years, women have been vanishing along the border of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexicso. The number is reportedly at least 1,500, although there is no official count. Sometimes the victims are found buried. Many times, they simply vanish, often on the unlit roads between their homes and the factories where they work.

The lack of a thorough investigation points to police and politicians who either don't care or don't have anything to gain by looking into the crimes. When the survivors of the missing women demand justice, they are deemed crazy, hysterical women. They march nevertheless, in the names of the "desapercidas," often around a sea of pink crosses memorializing the missing women.

With La Ruta, playwright ( and El Paso native ) Isaac Gomez gives voice to both the missing women and those who survive them. We see them at their 10-hour-day, assembly-line factory jobs. We see them on the bus—dark, deserted roads to the horizon—as they ride to and from work. We see them as human beings with distinct hopes, dreams and personalities. Their tragedy —and all that it says about area politics, misogyny and corruption—becomes impossible to reduce to a statistic from another place.

Gomez's drama is far more documentary than traditional drama. He culled the dialogue from interviews he did with the women whose loved ones vanished. He interviewed bus drivers who described seeing women being abducted as they ran for the bus. He interviewed a man convicted of murdering eight area women. The names have been changed. The veracity is chilling.

Directed by Sandra Marquez, La Ruta is two things: It is a geographically specific story about a demographically specific ( middle, lower-class ) group of women. It is also an irrefutable commentary on the way the world sees women—and has always seen women. The women of Juarez are part of a line of women deemed disposable, a line that reaches back eons. When the macro starts steaming through the micro, La Ruta's impact becomes a gut punch.

The plot follows Ivonne ( Karen Rodriguez ), a veteran factory worker who starts a friendship with Brenda ( Cher Alvarez ), a teenager who has dropped out of school to help support her family. We learn early that Brenda disappears, leaving her mother Yolanda ( Sandra Delgado ) nearly crippled by grief and anger.

By flipping back and forth in time, Gomez makes the scenes before Brenda's disappearance more wrenching since you know what's going to happen to her. Alvarez's portrayal does the same. Her Brenda is eminently recognizable: She's the bubbly teenager who loves and is exasperated by her mother, the girl who blushes when she sees the boy she likes and giggles remembering her quinceanera.

Ivonne's confidence and glamour leave Brenda a bit awestruck. But as Rodriguez makes clear in an eviscerating monologue late in the play, Ivonne has secrets. She's seen evil all but impossible to survive intact. The emotion in Ivonne's recollection of a crime is intense. Rodriguez makes it real.

There is similar intensity to the plight of Delgado's Yolanda and Charin Alvarez' Marisela. Initially, Marisela's default-emotion is optimism, insisting that Brenda will be on the next bus even when there is no next bus. Alvarez makes Marisela's activism the natural evolution of an insistent, determined outlook.

Music plays a large part in La Ruta, much of it gorgeously sung by the Laura Crotte, who plays guitar throughout the piece. Backed by the haunted, hunted women of Juarez ( Mari Marroquin, Alice da Cunha and Isabella Gerasole ), the sound of La Ruta is sonorous and deep.

There's no ending to this story. What Gomez offers instead is a portrait of undaunted resolve: las muertas de Juarez refuse to stand down. Gomez makes that resolve immovable: They are women with nothing left to lose. And with nothing on the line, they will stop at nothing to make themselves heard. La Ruta amplifies their calls.

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