Evelina Fernández’s world premiere play, The Mother of Henry, is set within Los Angeles’ Eastside barrio, Boyle Heights, in 1968. It was a watershed year. Although change was in the wind — the anti-war protests, civil rights marches, the farmworkers’ strikes — the murders of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, just two months apart, were deeply and painfully disheartening for many Americans. Dark forces, it seemed, were ascendant.
Evelina Fernández’s poignant new play, set in 1968, focuses on a Boyle Heights mother in a world gone awry.
Fernandez’s funny, poignant story spotlights a group of working-class people getting on with their lives in the midst of those tumultuous times. Directed by José Luis Valenzuela, its main character, Connie (Cheryl Umaña), is an unworldly Latina separated from her husband and hired to work in the returns department of a large store. Married at 15, Connie has five grown children; her youngest, Henry will soon be sent to Vietnam. Connie lives with her mom, who speaks little English and whose world-view, unlike Connie’s, is framed by Catholic dogma.
The department where Connie works is headed by Herb (Gary Patent) a soft-spoken Jewish man conversant on many topics, including the folly of our involvement in Vietnam. Connie soon meets her coworkers: Loretta (Ella Saldaña North), an opinionated Italian-American motormouth who is gung-ho for the war and makes snide remarks about Jews, people of color and gays; and Olga (Mary-Beth Manning), a cordial and open-minded Canadian immigrant about to adopt the daughter of a dying relative. Later Connie encounters Manny (Xavi Moreno), a smarmy, inveterate womanizer who targets her for seduction the moment they meet.
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But the most important relationship Connie forms is with La Virgen (Esperanza America), who appears to her when (despite her healthy skepticism) she kneels down to pray for Henry’s safety (just in case!). Garbed in satiny robes and attended by a guitar-strumming angel (Robert J. Revell), the down-to-earth deity lets Connie know right away that she hasn’t the power to change anyone’s fate. What she can do is provide people with solace and a bit of wisdom when things get rough. ”You will need me,” she predicts —and sadly, this prediction comes to pass.
Although the story’s pivotal moment of loss is staged too swiftly and abruptly, just about everything else in this endearing production works wonderfully, beginning with Umaña, who fills her role with warmth and elegant simplicity. The comic North steals scene after scene as the self-righteous, hip-swishing Loretta, while Patent’s impeccably honed Herb, a man with a secret, is that smart gentle fellow good to have for a friend. Moreno calibrates his lothario with expertise while Manning’s Olga brings distinctiveness to her empathetic clerk.
The La Virgen character reminds one of that wise experienced aunt you go to for counsel who briskly informs you of the score. Though this iconoclastic Madonna might have been given a sassier edge, her scenes with Connie are among the most satisfying in the play —they are where the playwright gives voice to a worldview that is sad and accepting, yet hopeful, tender and respectful of life. America not only suitably fills the bill in the role; she’s also a strong vocalist. She sings a number of the era’s most famous folk songs and her rendering of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” from her elevated perch above the stage is a stirring highlight.
As with the ensemble, the staging features fine work from everyone, a mark of Valenzuela’s assured direction. Scenic and lighting designers Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock keep the office set simple, in effective contrast to the more elaborate magical realism enveloping La Virgen. Video designer Yee Eun Nam floods the backdrop with historic images that give us a genuine sense of the era these people are living through. And designer John Zalewski’s sound adds layers of ambiance. A Hendrix-styled guitar solo from the Angel segues to a single excruciatingly dissonant note — a reflection, perhaps, of our anger and anguish when our world goes tragically awry.
[dc]T[/dc]he Mother of Henry: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; Wed., April 17, 8 p.m.; through April 20. (866) 811-4111 or thelatc.org. Running time: approximately one hour, 40 minutes with intermission.
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