By Melinda Lopez
Directed by Ellen Groves
Produced by Centastage
in collaboration with the Boston Playwrights Theatre
Boston MA, May, 2000.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Melinda Lopez' Kennedy Center prize winner "The Order of Things" made a debut to be savored: a rich blend of unusual flavors and fresh insights added to a meaty drama about the basics-- family, home, exile. The Playwrights Theatre at Boston University, where Lopez is currently completing her M.A. in creative writing, combined forces with Centastage to serve up Boston theatergoers an all too rare satisfaction: a fine and exciting new play by a local writer given the kind of detailed and polished production that every new play deserves. Centastage has been heroically shouldering the special burdens peculiar to premieres in our city for nearly a decade. This must be some sort of an achievement record. Many eager young companies, formed by MFA graduates from Boston University or from one of the other half dozen schools in this area with excellent theatre training programs, announce themselves as devoted exclusively to new plays and prepared to nurture the local talent-- and fold or migrate to less hostile territory after a season or two of empty houses and cruel reviews, once they realize that no fairy godfather will arrive with grants and praise to rescue them. When theatre people are working without a safety net, anything less than perfection can lead to quick demise. But Centastage has survived, and grown. Artistic Director Joe Antoun, who got his MFA from Emerson, has learned his lessons and taken his lumps and hung in there doing nothing but premieres for nine Centastage seasons. May 21st, his theatre is throwing itself a party to celebrate its upcoming tenth birthday: season 2000-2001. Melinda Lopez, an accomplished actress who has flowered into playwriting with the support of Centastage and its Women on Top Festival, provided Antoun's theatre with a script worth celebrating. In a wonderful example of community support, SpeakEasy Stage, where Lopez was playing the producer's wife in Craig Lucas' "The Dying Gaul", altered "Gaul"'s performance schedule so that the actress/playwright was able have the night off to attend her own play's opening!

"The Order of Things" reaches backward to the time of Fidel's Revolution, and to a family that was sundered when one sister fled to the USA while the other stayed behind in Cuba. This split was meant to be temporary. Delores and her sister Luz were never on opposing sides politically. They would both have preferred that Cuba stay as it was under Battista, when their family was respected, comfortable, and comparatively well off. But Luz (Genie Montalvo), the elder, decides to stay at home and fight the regime from within, while urging her pregnant younger sister Dolores (Nancy E. Carroll) to escape to the USA with her husband, Miguel (Mordecai S. Kaplan) . Miguel's mathematics degree, which in communist Cuba makes him suspect as part of the pre revolution elite, will enable him to be employed in the USA at a level beyond most Cuban exiles, and ensure that the child that will be born to them can grow up with material security. Once Castro is ousted the family can be reunited. Meanwhile, Luz will make a place for herself among the Revolutionaries, and enjoy the perks that come with spying on her neighbors.

But Castro was not ousted, and Delores' all important tie to her sister and her homeland has been worn away by frustration. Delores dare not write or call. Both home and family are out of reach, though never renounced. When we meet Delores, she is on her knees teaching her American born granddaughter Marta (Eliza Fichter) how best to scrub their blue and white tiled floor. America has so many different cleansers, a cleanser for every sort of dirt, and no excuse for not achieving a cleanliness that is next to Godliness. While they scrub, Dolores tells her granddaughter fairy tales in which giant birds and alligators come to the aid of the "heroes" against the "communistas." Susan Zeeman Rogers has designed a marvelously expressive set: a coolly antiseptic American kitchen segues into a dilapidated hut in tropical Cuba, where mother and son must take turns sleeping in the single bed. Yeal Lubetzky's lights, Benjamin Emerson's sound, Kristen Loeffler's costumes, Dean O'Donnell's projections, all conjure up these two contrasting worlds, and make each present at every moment in the imagination of the other.

Dolores' daughter Teresa (Andrea Kooharian), who has lived with her immigrant parents since her divorce, works for UPS. She spends much of the play looking like a refugee from Brownie Camp in UPS's brown shirt and Bermuda shorts delivery uniform: a uniform that is like a parody of the brown military gear worn by the Revolutionaries. This infantilization by costume carries more of the weight of characterization than Teresa's lines-- Teresa is a woman who has never found herself, all her energy has gone into surviving and trying to please the self absorbed or critical others who make up her little family in exile. When Delores suddenly begins bleeding from the site of her recent biopsy, Teresa briefly rouses herself to bully her mother into going into the hospital to get treatment for her breast cancer. However, Teresa's reward for this is that under medication Delores becomes even more obsessed with the sister and the home she left behind, more resentful of the daughter and husband who have imprisoned her in a land of strangers. Plus, Teresa's daughter Marta, who as an eight year old math savant denies any commonality with her despised innumerate mother, becomes even more bratty and crazed under the stress of her grandmother's immanent death. Marta wants to escape into the safe and rigid order of mathematics, like her reticent grandfather Miguel, or become the unreachable center of the family's universe, like her dying Grandma Dolores. Young Eliza Fichter makes no concession to audience sentimentality in her portrayal of this character, and the result is almost unbearable. The extremity of Marta's behavior makes one very curious about the child's interactions with the rest of the world-- is Marta like this all the time? At school? On the street? In the grocery? Who will ever befriend her?

There are sharp short scenes past and present of family life, and scenes of Luz's manipulations behind the lines in Cuba, in the shabby room shared with her homosexual son Del-- a wonderfully flamboyant role, wonderfully acted by Juan Luiz Acevedo. The only scenes with the rest of the world are those involving John Porell as an American doctor flustered by his Cuban patient. Dolores has made her distrust of him evident without speaking English, and in his discomfort Dr. Master tactlessly assumes that Dolores cannot understand the language of the country in which she has lived for forty years. Marta is in this scene: it is the one opportunity to see how the child's identity as Cuban and as mathematical genius alters under the pressure of assimilation. But Marta's impulse to act out as usual is quickly quelled by the masterful males-- the doctor and her grandfather-- who are in charge in a hospital ordered by a professional status hierarchy.

The hospital's treatment is failing, so Teresa turns to the rituals of faith-- but Catholicism and Santaria are equally unfamiliar to her. She enlists Marta in a conjuring experiment that produces a very earthy apparition, a bearded, cigar smoking camouflaged young Castro (John Porell again) who claims to be able to come up with a medical miracle -- for a price. Teresa doesn't buy that miracle, but a miracle does occur-- Luz comes to them, the sisters are reunited. After Dolores, in a shocking moment of self evaluation, renounces her heart blocking love for the sister and homeland that are lost forever, and vows to empty them out of her heart to make room for the people she has lived with all these years, Luz. appears. Luz, too, cannot bear the idea that death will make the sisters' estrangement permanent. Luz has left Cuba and come to Dolores' bedside to say good bye.

Lopez uses idea of Order, and mathematics, as a framing device. At the top of the show Miguel puts on a slide lecture, the coastline of Cuba as illustrating fractals. I think this device unhelpful in its present form: Miguel and his theories aren't particular and detailed enough to carry all that metaphorical weight. But Lopez' reach for intellectual scope seems to me to be a reach in the right direction, and the script is still in its formative stage. The reach for temporal scope also fails-- Gina Montalvo is the only actor who can successfully play her character in youth and age, given the naturalistic performance style favored by director Ellen Groves and her cast. But these are small faults in an informative and absorbing play, to be corrected in the next draft, the next production.