Cartas a una madre (Letters to a Mother)
nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
December 6, 2008
Repertorio Español's new production, Cartas a una madre (Letters to a Mother), explores how a change in nation, a change in language, begets many selves. The story takes place from the point of view of Mrs. Bauer, a Latin American immigrant at the end of her life. She relives the major changes she has both chosen and been forced to make, most notably being cast away to the U.S. by her father after giving birth to an illegitimate son and later marrying an American and taking on a new name.
Playwright Marcelo Rodríguez has several Venezuelan telenovela credits to his name, and the play at times veers perilously close to classic TV drama territory, particularly when touches of tense music fill in pauses. More suited to the stage, and compelling, is his choice to portray a single character via three actors: one playing Mrs. Bauer as a young woman; the second as a world-weary, middle-aged widow; and the third, the woman in the present. The various selves question, comfort, and argue with each other in the elderly woman's bedroom; each advocates what is most important to her. This is a fascinating reminder of the individual's lifelong relationship with the self, how you are never entirely the age or the name you have been assigned. At times an impetuous, melodramatic teenager speaks up, at other times someone people address as "Mrs." takes over. The adult self consoles the child she once was, and sometimes the child is the sole defendant of a capacity for wonder. These characters are not wandering ghosts, but opinionated women speaking from a particular experience. Director José Zayas brings a special attention to keeping the relationships among Mrs. Bauer's selves clear, but always nuanced; there are wonderfully subtle touches when the protagonist's two younger selves react simultaneously to new information.
The talented cast saves an uneven narrative progression—a loyalty to portraying "real-life events" results in often superfluous details and themes that don't form a cohesive whole. Miriam Cruz assumes the lead role with full force, a task that takes some bravery, as this ranges from portraying the scatological to the tragic. She harnesses her rich voice throughout extended storytelling episodes and can transform a single word into any expression she desires. Ernesto de Villa-Bejjani commands sympathy from the first moment he's briefly onstage as the long-lost son, while Rosie Berrido brings a much-needed injection of energy to the second half as Mrs. Bauer's gossipy caretaker.
For a play about losing home, and in consequence, the self one has known, there is a curious question of the Spanish language here. The production seems to be stuck in an uncomfortable spot between telling a universal immigrant story and a single woman's experience. While Venezuela is not explicitly named as Mrs. Bauer's homeland, there are moments of specificity in the text that make her undeniably from there (for example, jokingly describing her face as round as an arepa, and referencing a legend from an Amazonian tribe). However, Mrs. Bauer as a young self, as well as her son, speak in crisp Mexican accents, while her other personifications speak in controlled Puerto Rican or more neutral tones. This may sound like an unfair quibble; after all, the diverse cast is most likely using the best of their faculties speaking naturally instead assuming an unfamiliar accent. This multi-accented approach might also make the production more accessible to non-Spanish speaking viewers, as there are not many nuances of expression to be missed. (Simultaneous recorded translation in English is available via headphones.) Probably unintentionally, the actors' differing relationships to language also contribute to the sensation of viewing a self split in three.
Nevertheless, the work has not been written from the point of view of general Latin American diaspora, and this need for a sense of location seems to be reining the actors in some. Berrido shines in the role of caretaker precisely because her role doesn't face this dilemma. She can delight in the Spanish language as spoken in a particular place: her inflections, humorous tones, and treatment of particular words are unmistakably Caribbean, and therefore rich, full, true. It made me wonder how the other characters could have opened up were this possibility of speaking a country-specific Spanish available.
This is a minor point next to the pleasure of seeing a full, professional production in Spanish, though, particularly in the company's elegant and intimate space. Finally, Cartas a una madre offers a rare opportunity to honestly engage with issues of aging, dying, and remembering, themes that, like elderly women, are largely left in the shadows.