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The Quality of Mercy: Social Realism Meets Magical Realism Meets East L.A.

Alex Ximenez, Susan Davis, and Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez (Photo: Ed Krieger)

Alex Ximenez, Susan Davis, and Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez (Photo: Ed Krieger)

A CAT NAMED MERCY

Largely set in a nursing home, Playwright Josefina Lopez’s A Cat Named Mercy contains a cavalcade of social problems and issues, including: Aging; mortality; racism; the criminal (in)justice system; sickness; health insurance; economic duress; sexual frustration; suicide; incest; unemployment; sexual molestation; downsizing on the job; immigration status (or lack of) and probably other societal ills this reviewer can’t even remember. The two-acter covers so many contemporary predicaments that the plot seemed to have everything in it except for the proverbial kitchen sink.

This is ironic because much of Mercy is what used to be called a “kitchen sink drama” -- those British plays and films such as John Osborne’s 1950s Look Back in Anger that were social realist works about the working class. A sharp departure from those veddy proper English drawing room comedies of manners featuring upper class characters (and perhaps their valets) in bourgeois plays by Noel Coward, et al, the kitchen sink drama focused on the plight of the proletariat. Steeped in Lopez’s East L.A. consciousness (she wrote the play and film Real Women Have Curves), much of Mercy truthfully details the realities facing ordinary workers caught up in the contradictions of a capitalist system ever intent on putting profiteering ahead of people.

Alex Denny and Alex Ximenez

Alex Denny and Alex Ximenez

The best thing about this drama and cast of 14 is Mercy’s lead character, East L.A. actress Alex Ximenez, who naturalistically, convincingly portrays the lead character, Catalina Rodriguez. A beautiful young woman Ximenez glams herself down to realistically depict the plain, virginal, repressed (well, if you had a father like Catalina’s, it would probably affect your sexuality, too!) role. Catalina is a young, very dedicated nurse at a home for the aging, devoted to the care of her elderly patients who all love her, except for the racist Kitty played by veteran actress Susan Davis, who had a recurring role as a nympho nurse in the popular 1970s sitcom Barney Miller.

Catalina is a bit reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, an innocent, angelic, beatific protagonist ensnared by the wicked ways of the world. Although Catalina works in a nursing home facility, she cares for her undocumented, diabetic, blind Mama (Blanca Araceli), who is unable to get the care she needs. In the course of the play Catalina herself is beset by a dire need for health insurance, a recurring theme throughout the drama.

Most of the first act is in the social realist mode and Lopez’s plot is very much on the nose, leaving little to the imagination. This however literally sets the stage for the second act, wherein magical realism enters the scene, largely in the form of the titular cat (the play’s protagonist -- Catalina -- cleverly has the word “Cat” in her first name). The feline female actress Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez dexterously, adeptly plays the cat, although when Vasquez purrs and meows she has a human accent. Act II also has quasi-religious undertones and Kitty literally has a “come to Jesus moment.”

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Henry Madrid, Alex Ximinez, Susan Davis, Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez, Hector Rodriguez, and Maria G. Martinez

Henry Madrid, Alex Ximinez, Susan Davis, Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez, Hector Rodriguez, and Maria G. Martinez

Throughout Mercy radio reports are played that seem to hold out the promise that like the cavalry, the so-called Affordable Care Act is riding to the rescue of America’s healthcare crisis. Really? The reality of President “OPharma’s” behind-closed-doors deal and sellout to Big Pharma and other vested interests -- without even bothering to fight for the public option and extending a form of Medicaid and Medicare to all -- is that millions are still left without coverage. Thanks to President “OPharma”, my family was thrown off of our health insurance plan, and although we applied more than two months ago on the (un)Covered Cal website and have been told we’re eligible for a subsidized plan, we’re unable to access it because the bureaucrats still haven’t processed the pixel/paperwork. So thanks to President OBlahBlahBlah we lost our healthcare and can’t afford to go see doctors now to be treated for our problems. When media mouthpieces blab about the advent of affordable universal healthcare now, this may be true in CUBA -- but certainly not California. This is (un)affordable healthcare and insurance brought to you by the same fine federal folks who gave us Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction -- just another colossal lie. And putting your faith in this government to solve our problems is about as realistic as believing religion will.

Having said that, despite some propaganda and religious mumbo jumbo, Mercy is an enjoyable slice of working class life that shines a light on some real pressing problems masses of people face. There is also an interesting subplot about the interrelationship between Latinos and Filipinos (Minerva Vier plays Catalina’s Filipina supervisor, who experiences a conversion), as there is in the upcoming Cesar Chavez biopic. The drama, which has some lighter moments, is well-acted and ably directed by Hector Rodriguez. And for what it’s worth, Casa 0101 is a lovely venue, with great artwork hanging in its space.

As Portia tells Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

Ed Rampell

A Cat Named Mercy is being performed through Feb. 23 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. at Casa 0101 Theater, 2009 East First St., L.A., CA 90033. For more info: (323)263-7684.

Ed Rampell

The new book co-authored by Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” See:http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.