If slow and steady wins the race, then Kathleen Anderson Culebro's play La Llorona, a Love Story is crossing the finish line in style.
The play has had a presence throughout Amphibian Stage Productions' decade-long history. In 2001, it was staged as a studio production by Theatre TCU, at Texas Christian University, the school where the 'Phibs co-founders either attended or taught. In 2007, the show (then called La Llorona/The Crying Woman) made it to off-Broadway's Beckett Theatre. After additions, trims and character-tuning, it has now re-emerged in a good-looking and rhythmic production that builds slowly, brick-by-brick.
The basic premise is the same: Jeffrey (Jonathan Fielding) is a workaholic who is promoted within the corporate office of an American-based Mexican fast food chain called Taco Tower. When the restaurants are to expand into Mexico, he and his wife Liz (Elizabeth Mason), a college professor, are asked to relocate to Mexico City. Her initial objections include the play's best line, which also sets up one of the show's themes, of culture-clash: "I'm pretty sure they already have Mexican food in Mexico."
Before that, we meet another couple, out-of-work Mexican architect Carlos (Nicholas Urda) and his wife Irma (Caroline Tamas). Although he comes from money and has inherited a nice home, hard times force the couple to rethink their finances. They decide to rent their house out. They'll stay in their room and look after the property and clean up after the tenants, Jeffrey and Liz (naturally).
The culture thread is woven throughout, most absurdly with Jeffrey's effort to solve "the burrito problem" (how do you market a concept that has been hijacked by American culture?), but it's not what gives La Llorona its backbone and grace. The title refers to the Latin American legend of the "weeping woman," which has many variations, but most commonly focuses on a woman who killed her children so that she could be with a man who would later reject her.
In this story, Irma is close to giving birth when Jeffrey and Liz arrive. During their stay in Mexico, Liz, who had been trying to become pregnant for years back in the States, finally accomplishes that goal.
Irma's superstitions, such as the luck a woodpecker can bring and the idea of staring at someone whom you'd want your unborn baby to look like, are an integral part of the story. The heart of these old wives tales, which slowly start to be believed by the American couple, are what give La Llorona poetic sting. At other times, when the play is referencing NAFTA or working too hard to explain Carlos and Irma's financial strains, it feels contrived.
It was a smart decision to change the subtitle from "The Crying Woman" to "A Love Story," because the play works best when it's focusing on the relationships of each couple and their separate plans for family and future. The director of this incarnation, Tlaloc Rivas, has paced the show in such a thoughtful manner that even if it feels slow and ponderous at times, it all builds to its stunning close. That's when the show's devastating final image smashes through the brick wall that had been steadily layered.
If memory of the 2001 production serves, the characters have been more finely tuned, too. Liz, as played by Mason, is no longer like one of those "ugly Americans" you might see on, say, any season of The Amazing Race—usually rich divorcees complaining about a third-world country's poverty and lack of American-style obsessive cleanliness. Mason, a stunning redhead, plays her sympathetically, which makes her change at the end all the more frightening. Fielding might forever be plagued by his "nice guy" face (which explains the moustache for this show), but here it works nicely for an ambitious character who may have gotten to his position faster than he ever expected. In the role that the audience is supposed to dislike, there's some humor and charm beneath that thin veil of false earnestness.
Urda and Tamas have a believable chemistry, as if they've worked together before. It's hard not to feel his pain as the former breadwinner who is emotionally crumbling because he can no longer take care of his family in a weak economy. (The show is set in the mid-1990s, presumably as the Mexican economy tanked soon after NAFTA was signed during the Clinton administration in America.) He's too smart to overplay the Mexican machismo angle. She creates a human being from something that might have been merely a quirky woman spouting wacky superstitions all the time.
John Aaron Bell's scenic design puts the Mexican couple's living area in one corner of the black box space at the Sanders Theatre, with the audience on two adjacent sides. Huge opaque tapestries set off the room, and leave space behind one side for characters to slowly enter or exit, still in view of the audience. Aaron Lentz's lighting is haunting and, when necessary, creates a bedroom in the middle of the living space.
Perhaps the smartest change Culebro has made with the play is to not show the character of La Llorona, but rather have her occasionally heard or visually referenced through the women characters. It makes her presence all the more real, if you believe in such things.
Through its characters and honest storytelling, La Llorona makes it nearly impossible not to.