The guilt of mothers
There’s a lot going on in “Living Out,” the exceptionally strong lead-off production for the new season at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
It’s billed as a “Latino comedy,” but mostly this is a story about female guilt – in particular, the variety experienced by mothers who, for one reason or another, have other people caring for their children.
The setting is modern-day L.A., but the themes are as universal as they are timely. Ana Hernandez (Romi Dias) grew up in El Salvador, and she has one child still there and another with her husband Bobby (Rey Lucas). Their dream includes getting green cards to be legal and reuniting the family. To that end, Ana takes a job as a nanny for a pair of Santa Monica attorneys, Richard and Nancy Robin (Makela Spielman and Christopher Burns).
The first act of “Living Out” has plenty of laughs, as Ana tries to navigate the tricky shoals of the nanny scene with help from some local veterans she meets in the park: Zoila Tezo (Socorro Santiago) and Sandra Zavala (Gabriella Cavallero). It doesn’t take long for Ana to understand that telling the whole truth about her situation can work against her, so she tells Nancy that both of her children are in El Salvador. Thinking she’s child-free, Nancy starts asking Ana to stay late so she can attend meetings, setting the stage for a showdown between Ana and Bobby.
“Living Out” is all about Ana and Nancy, both of whom agonize over the time they’re spending away from their children. But while Ana knows of Nancy’s guilty feelings, Nancy is oblivious to Ana’s plight. That fact will ultimately work itself out with tragic result.
In an era when immigrants in the country illegally are vilified, “Living Out” puts a human face on some of the types of people in question. What we see in Ana and Bobby are not society-sucking interlopers trying to destroy America but two people trying to do the best they can for themselves and their family. When their best efforts reveal themselves to run counter to their notion of the American Dream, the laughs in Lisa Loomer’s play quickly turn to tears.
There’s a lot of nice things happening in this production, which was directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. The first good choice was to stage it in-the-round at Denver Center’s Space Theatre. Goldberg makes excellent use of the space, dispensing with scene changes in favor of one set that stands not only for the homes of Ana and Bobby and Richard and Nancy but for local rich matrons Wallace Breyer (Lanie MacEwan) and Linda Billings Farzam (Kathleeen McCall). Scenes flow organically into one another, with neat touches like Richard and Bobby (who never meet) sharing the same couch for a moment, the switch to Bobby’s living room marked by him flipping the TV to a Spanish-language ball game.
We saw Dias in last season’s “The Clean Room,” a fun, asymmetric comedy that showcased her tremendous range and talent. In “Living Out,” this delightful actress does a bang-up job taking Loomer’s strong but vulnerable Ana and showing us every deliberation in her words and, more importantly, in her highly emotive face. Depicting a character torn between the two worlds she’s trying to inhabit, Dias delivers a break-out performance that sets the bar high for the cadre of Denver Center Theatre actors looking to make names for themselves under new artistic director Kent Thompson.
It’s tempting for a playwright creating a pressure-cooker situation to introduce some bad behavior, but Loomer resisted the temptation in “Living Out.” We’re set up at first to believe Bobby might be the stereotypical chauvinist Latino, but he turns out to be a good guy. Swayed by others, Nancy takes a shot at shrewishness and duplicity but doesn’t prove up to the task. And even when Nancy and Richard are yelling at each other, we never doubt their sincerity or authenticity as people ” or that they’ll soon make up.
No, this is a play about fate, as well as how two couples who may seem worlds apart share the same anxieties and concerns as the other. It also speaks to the power of money to help alleviate at least some of those most pressing problems. Even so, we see the Robins torn between paying their outrageous mortgage and wanting to spend more time with their daughter.
“Living Out” is the right play at the right time for a nation trying to assess its own priorities vis-à-vis immigrants and the role they play in our lives. More generally, it skillfully – and at times hilariously – illustrates the powerful forces at work as all of us try to apportion our time and money into the correct mix for a happy family.