Reviewed by Guy Picot
Stephanie Alison Walker’s The Abuelas was developed, in part, through the Antaeus Playwright Lab and is the first such piece to receive a full production there.
The wide Antaeus stage is transformed into an immaculate Chicago lakeside apartment, it feels like a sitcom set, and the first twenty minutes of the play delivers plenty of laughs as a high-achieving neo-liberal couple (Seamus Dever and Luisina Quarleri), he’s an architect, she’s a cellist, deal with the wife’s hilariously interfering mother (Denise Blasor), visiting from Argentina.
Things take a turn when guests (Irene De Bari and David DeSantos) show up for the mother’s birthday party and drop a bombshell, after which the play walks the tightrope between political history-lesson and family dramedy.
The Abuelas of the title are a group of Argentinian grandmothers dedicated to tracing the children of “the disappeared”, who were abducted, tortured and killed under the General Videla-led junta, following his successful coup in 1976. Pregnant women were killed after giving birth, their babies given to party-approved adopters.
The long apartment scenes are separated by shorter, more theatrical glimpses of ESMA, the makeshift prison/maternity ward where the women were taken. These flashbacks (featuring Carolina Montenegro) are in shocking contrast to the rest of the play but are less well-served by Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s conspicuously well-appointed set.
Our sympathies shift as we hear all sides of the story, and some old wounds are re-opened. The play explores acceptance and forgiveness, and what constitutes motherhood. There are betrayals both big and small, as the family adjusts to the new knowledge that has been thrust upon them.
Director Andi Chapman keeps things moving briskly so we hardly notice that there is a lot more revelation than action. What could be a dry piece of political theatre is lifted by inventive staging and the authenticity of the performances.
The cast is uniformly excellent, the women rightly taking center-stage as stoic support is given by the men.
Antaeus is not doing their signature double-casting this season so you don’t have to wonder if the team you didn’t see would have been better. And they certainly wouldn’t have been.
Photo (above) by Jenny Graham: Denise Blasor and Luisina Quarleri
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