Dallas — There are many reasons, from all over the scale, to remember a certain theater production weeks—even months or years—after seeing it. In the case of Octavio Solis’ Lydia, it’s because the play doesn’t shy away from making the audience uncomfortable to the point of seat-squirming, a risk that pays off when the production is as beautifully crafted as the current one by Cara Mía Theatre Company.
Lydia, directed by David Lozano, is the fourth show in Cara Mía’s biggest season since its triumphant return on the scene about six years ago; and the fifth show in the inaugural season of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project at the Wyly Theatre.
This Chicano company has excelled at creating harrowing original work about discrimination in small town Texas and the horrors of immigration from Central America, and is one of a handful of local companies with an instantly recognizable performance aesthetic. Still, Lydia feels like an important step forward, as not only an established work from a significant American playwright, but as a living room drama with serious heft, dealing with a Mexican-American family in 1970s El Paso struggling with deep secrets.
Abusive, complex patriarch Claudio (a commanding, brooding Rodney Garza) instills the fear of everyone near him, while wife Rosa (Frida Espinosa-Müller) and their bright teenage son Misha (Marcus Piñon) are working toward a brighter future. Juxtapose him with his older brother Rene (Ruben Carrazana), who enacts violence in the community. At the heart of it all—and center stage for much of the nearly three-hour drama—is Misha and Rene’s sister Ceci (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso), who was severely brain damaged in an auto accident and can only make incomprehensible sounds and slight moves. Complicating matters is the siblings’ cousin Alvaro (Ivan Jasso), who along Rene was involved in the life-altering accident and is now a border patrol agent, to the chagrin of Rene.
Enter Lydia (Alejandra Flores), the maid Rosa has hired to help with the care of Ceci. Lydia and Ceci have an immediate bond, and her interaction with other members of the family is the catalyst that exhumes those secrets that won’t stay buried.
I’ve watched Cleghorn Jasso’s growth over a decade or so, from her work at Fort Worth’s Artes de la Rosa to a regular with Cara Mía and Dead White Zombies, and recently with Undermain Theatre. This is her best work, and not just because it’s such a challenging role. The character frequently steps out of reality to coherently speak about her desires, her dreams and feelings—and without regrets, despite the tragedy that changed her life. If you don’t buy into her hyper-charged subconscious—the play won’t have the intended impact. She attacks it fearlessly. The “fire inside” that Ceci talks about is unmistakable.
There’s exceptionally detailed work from others in the ensemble, too, especially Piñon and Espinosa-Müller (who has been doing especially strong work this season, notably in Zoot Suit). Lozano paces it out with a series of builds and small crashes that braces us somewhat for the final, devastating moments—although what Solis brazenly dramatizes will still have you thronged with uneasiness. It’s at once creepy, distressing and powerfully moving. Weeks later, you’ll still be thinking about it.
Without giving too much away about a subplot, it’s interesting to compare one storyline with Colossal, the show that the Dallas Theater Center is staging in the Wyly’s larger space downstairs. Both deal with homosexuality in male-dominated worlds—the patriarchal rule and machismo in Latino culture and the testosterone-fueled landscape of football. In Lydia, partly because of the significant generational shift between the ’70s and now—but more because Solis has written such a poetic tragedy—there’s less hope about the outcome.
Each of the groups that have used the Wyly’s studio spaces for the Elevator Project has found interesting staging configurations, but in this case, the more traditional proscenium set-up as its advantages.
This is largely because of the brilliant work by scenic designer Scott Osborne and lighting designer Linda Blase. The living area of the family’s house is back-dropped by a series of earthtoned panels designed so that at heightened moments Blase’s lighting reveals something in the walls. It looks like thin tree branches, but could represent metaphorical foundation cracks as well as the intricate underground pathways of ant colonies. One game the siblings and their cousin played as youths was pretending to be ants with special powers.
Giva Taylor’s costumes perfectly suit the era and characters, and there’s special care with Ceci’s beautiful all-white quinceñeara dress, which speaks of the character’s hopes that have been altered forever, and not just because of the accident.
There’s only one weekend of Lydia left, and unless you’re intimidated by challenging theater (and if you are, what’s wrong with you?), make every attempt to get there. It’s the best work to date from a company that always goes full throttle.