A Tale of Deeply Felt Defiance
For widowed Josefina (María González) living quietly in Buenos Aires during the late 1970’s, life is relatively simple: keep your head down, follow the right soccer team (“right, Padre?”), dust your house, and say your prayers. In the era of Juntas, living carefully might save you and yours.
But will it?
It’s a question that hangs over much of award-winning playwright Stephanie Alison Walker’s stunning and powerfully written new work, “The Madres,” currently on stage at Moxie Theatre.
It is a unique production in that “The Madres,” has, in a sense come home. The play was read at The San Diego Repertory Theatre by the Amigos del Rep in 2016, and now closes Moxie’s season as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. Moxie is one of four theatre companies chosen to host the show.
Set in the middle of the era of murderous conservative right-wing government in Argentina, “The Madres” is a brilliant, diamond-sharp look at what happens when fascism cloaked as civic duty, offers little people a taste of power and bigger people the excuse with which to exploit fear and foibles for their own gain.
It’s a little known era for most Americans, but one that has deep resonance for our current situation.
From 1973 to about 1983, the staunchly right-wing Junta, infused with Nazi sympathizers (shades of our current times), carried out intimidation, arrests and disappearances. At first a campaign to root out left-wing “insurgents,” the Dirty War, as it was known, soon expanded to include ordinary people who hadn’t even remotely expressed a dissenting opinion. Fond of Ford Falcons, the police would roll through neighborhoods, picking up their targets, frequently in broad daylight. No one was safe, not even a famous singer like Mercedes Sosa. With the complicity of the CIA-run program, Operation Condor, more than 30,000 people eventually disappeared. They disappeared into torture centers in places like the Naval Mechanics’ School (ESME), or dropped, drugged and alive, out of cargo planes into the sea off the beaches of Tierra del fuego. Pregnant women were frequently targets– useful as pressure on their families, and because their children could be sold or given as gifts.
It is against this backdrop that Josefina’s carefully curated world of appearances and half-truths starts to crack when an old friend, Padre Juan (John Padilla) drops by, ostensibly to catch up and cage some croissants. Padre Juan is a puzzle, a priest employed by the Junta as a confessor of torturer and tortured at the ESME where los desaparecidos– the disappeared ones, are taken. He can barely keep his hands off the pastries, but Josefina’s clever banter brings him to reveal his real purpose – gently warning Josefina that her daughter Carolina has been keeping questionable company. Namely, the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo, who march in front of the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace, wearing white bandanas with names embroidered on them, and carrying placards of people they claim are missing. “Las Locas,” Josefina thinks they’re called. The mad women.
And what of Belen, her granddaughter, inquires the priest.
Away. In Paris. Somewhere. Away.
Padre Juan may have cracked Josefina’s carefully created façade, but it is her beloved daughter Caro, Carolina (Sandra Ruiz), who strips off the last layer. Fiery where her mother is charming, straightforward where her mother is well-mannered, Caro lays bare the stories just outside the door: people taken away in, people held and tortured at the ESME where Padre Juan now works, the hope of people suddenly released.
Carolina fairly crackles with incandescent, indignant energy. And with reason. With a quick, matter of fact flick of her wrist, Carolina reveals that she, too, wears a white scarf with a name.
Caro’s newly married and pregnant daughter Belen, it seems, is not in Paris.
The two women are soon hosts to another visitor, more forceful than the first. Dieguito, as Josefina fondly remembers him, is Diego (Markuz Rodriguez) now, smartly dressed in a military uniform that cannot quite hide the insecure young man looking for acceptance, love, and power. Like Padre Juan, Diego has a thing for Josefina’s pastries, and in between empanadas he inquires after Belen on whom he had a crush (oh, Paris. I see…) and extolls the virtues of the Junta’s civil morality project, including “ridding” society of people like Belen’s musician husband, with chilling, acolyte-like devotion.
As the two women realize both Diego and Padre Juan may know where Belen is, they are galvanized into staging a baby shower in hopes Belen might turn up. It’s a very long shot, but one that pays off- Belen (Laura Jimenez) is brought to her own party, a translucent, bruised Madonna- by none other than Diego. And from there, “The Madres” moves swiftly on to its quiet, devastating climax.
Walker’s ‘The Madres” supposes some knowledge of the Junta that held Argentina in its grip and disappeared so many. Hints are telegraphed throughout the play- and those who know the history will know what is coming. But for those for whom this is new territory, Moxie has provided exceptionally well-written program notes. Try to read them before the show starts, this will clarify a lot of the subtext as well as explain many of the references.
“The Madres” is a multi-layered show, laced with moments of surprisingly witty dialog and deeply disturbing realizations. Co-directors Maria Patrice Amon and Jennifer Eve Thorn have shepherded what is easily the best production of the season, allowing the text to breath and helping the very fine cast develop a rapport that infuses their interactions with humanity and depth.
María González brings a deeply human charm to Josefina, easily moving from the woman who knows but doesn’t want to be the woman who decides enough is enough. Sandra Ruiz’s Caro is a perfect foil for Josefina and their mother-daughter conversations are beautifully authentic. The intricacies of their complex relationship only serve to heighten the suspense as they plan the “baby shower.”
As for Laura Jimenez, her time on stage as Belen in the flesh is short, but her presence is compelling as she anchors the power center between the other characters. Jimenez keeps Belen balanced, seamlessly switching from a young woman cautiously relieved to see her family to a traumatized prisoner trying to avoid Diego’s clumsy gestures of concern.
If the women are resistance, then the men are part of the multi-faceted face of the Junta. John Padilla as Padre Juan is both charming people’s priest and a pillar for the new morality. When Josefina finally realizes this, there is a sense of “y tu, padre” in her eyes, and one cannot help but be reminded of another Argentinian priest, then head of the Jesuits, now a beloved Pope whose murky past still haunts him.
Markus Rodriguez is perfect as the menacing Diego, hitting a perfect balance of aggrieved nice guy and budding sadist who identifies with the State. When he hints that Padre Juan might meet the same fate as two priests who were seized by the Junta (true story), he’s not kidding.
It’s hard to know who is the worst collaborator- the waffling priest or the troubled boy turned torturer’s apprentice. Both are poster boys for Hannah Arendt’s concept, the banality of evil.
Walker’s well-crafted drama is complimented by equally well-crafted staging. Alondra Velez’s well-lit, modest middle class set accommodates the range of movement without upstaging the arc of the play with unnecessary detail while Danita Lee’s costumes hit just the right note for the era. Haley Wolf’s sound design is beautifully unobtrusive with a nice choice of a Gardel tango and a piece by Mercedes Sosa to create subtle connections between the Argentina of Josefina’s past and the more militant one of Caro’s present. Wolf could have given the finale more subtext had she chosen Sosa’s version of “Los Hemanos,” (“I have so many brothers, I cannot even count them”), a song seen as a direct rebuke to the Latin American dictatorships of the era.
Walker has clearly done her homework, basing her play on real accounts and her own experiences in Argentina, seeing The Madres still asking for their missing sons and daughters years later. It’s a gripping story with compelling twists, and its final question- what would you do if this were you- may be more relevant to our times than we realize.
“The Madres” continues at Moxie until June 10. The closing night show features a special talk back with Alejandro Meter, PhD to learn more about the play, “The Disappeared”, and the Jewish Diaspora in Argentina. If you decide to attend the talk-back, you might want to look up Jacobo Timmerman’s book, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number, for background on how Jews critical of the Junta were treated.
Please see Moxietheatre.com for information on show times and tickets.