Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona are known for presenting challenging, thought-provoking theater pieces—and CV Rep has solidified that well-deserved reputation with Carmen Rivera’s La Gringa.
The Spanish version of the show opened at Repertorio Español in February 1996 and won an Obie that year. (CV Rep is presenting the English version.) It’s still in repertory and holds the distinction of being the longest-running Off-Broadway Spanish language play.
The story chronicles the journey of 20-something Maria (Ayanery Reyes), a Puerto Rican woman who was born and raised in New York, as she searches for her roots in her homeland. She heads to Puerto Rico at Christmas time to visit her aunt Norma (Marina Re), cousin Iris (Kyla Garcia) and uncles Victor (Robert Almodovar) and Manolo (Peter Mins). We also meet likable neighbor Monchi (Eliezer Ortiz), who owns a thriving vegetable farm.
Bouncing through the front door filled with enthusiasm and sporting a jeans-jacket adorned with a Puerto Rican flag appliqué, Maria hopes for a warm, fuzzy family reunion—and those hopes are soon dashed. Her hosts do not share her excitement about Puerto Rican life. They are blasé about the historical sites and irritated by the coqui frogs Maria considers charming.
Aunt Norma is bitter and filled with resentment that her sister Olga (Maria’s unseen mother) left the island to live in New York, and had their late mother buried far away from Norma’s home. Most of her anger is directed toward her niece, whom she calls la gringa (white girl), partly because Maria can barely speak Spanish. Norma is also filled with regret over opting for the ordinary life as a Puerto Rican housewife and mother over a once-promising singing career. Cousin Iris is frustrated over her as-yet unsuccessful job-hunting efforts, and she’s tired of island life in general. Though fond of Maria, she’s not thrilled about taking her on a tour of the island, and doesn’t really want to hear about the wonders of life in the Big Apple.
Norma’s brother, Uncle Manolo, is bedridden with an undisclosed illness. Norma treats him like a baby, yet she wields an iron hand, and is always on the lookout for the alcohol Manolo stashes under the bed. (Beer is one of the few pleasures he has left in life.) After all, he tells his sister: “I’m old, and I’m going to die. Let me drink!”
Norma’s husband, Victor, the good guy who tries to smooth things over, wonders why everyone just can’t get along. He spends most of the play attempting to get the family truck running … and eventually succeeds.
The cast is quite strong. Marina Re captures Norma’s self-righteous anger, which has been simmering for years. Her breakdown and eventual metamorphosis are quite moving. As Victor, Robert Almodovar is warm and appealing—the kind of guy with whom you’d like to share a drink. Peter Mins is very effective as Uncle Manolo; the audience genuinely feels his joy when he gets out of his sickbed. Eliezer Ortiz’s Monchi is fun to watch. We’re really rooting for his farm to succeed—and for Maria to fall for him. Kyla Garcia is quite good as Cousin Iris. She has great chemistry with Re and Reyes.
Though Ayanery Reyes is adorable as Maria—with a dazzling smile and great charisma—there were times when her acting came across as a tad shallow. Her transitions from deep sorrow to happiness (particularly after Uncle Victor announces he has made a stew out of the pet rabbit he recently gave her) sometimes don’t ring true. Reyes is dynamic onstage, and overall, she turns in a good performance; I’d just like to see her dig a little deeper emotionally.
Ron Celona once again proves his skill as a director. He’s particularly good at casting, and elicits memorable performances from each actor. There were a few slow moments, though the pace does pick up in the second act.
Jimmy Cuomo’s set is fabulous and creates just the right tone, as does the music. Cricket S. Meyers, Randy Hansen and Karen Goodwin do great work on the play’s sound, and Eddie Cancel’s lights are fantastic. Aalsa Lee’s costumes and Lynda Shaep’s hair and makeup are terrific.
La Gringa is particularly timely considering our country’s ongoing political battle over immigration. The play does make you think about what the word “home” really means. In the end, the play proves that the cliché is true: Home is where the heart is.
La Gringa is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.