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Review of 'Lydia' at the Mark Taper Forum

April 15, 2009 | 10:00 pm


Magical realism meets telenovela in Octavio Solis’ “Lydia,” an anguish-drenched domestic elegy that’s as haunting and lyrical as it is rambling and overwrought. What begins with the delicate sense of ghostly footsteps takes on an increasingly melodramatic tread as the story of family members still reeling from a tragic accident that incapacitated their lovely teenage daughter spins in rather unexpected psychosexual directions.
Anxiety of influence obviously isn’t a problem for Solis, whose play opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum under the direction of Juliette Carrillo. The work, which tries to make room for the erotic combustion of Ingmar Bergman and the American-dream deconstructions of Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller, reveals a sensibility that doesn’t want to leave anything out. (Should I even mention the allusions to “A Streetcar Named Desire”?)  The result is a satisfying epic fullness but not a whole lot of focus. 
Set in the early ’70s, “Lydia” takes place in the living room of the Flores’ El Paso home, where English is the dominant tongue, but Spanish is still liberally spoken. Rosa (Catalina Maynard) and Claudio (Daniel Zacapa), two Mexican immigrants hoping to provide their three kids with better economic opportunities, have furnished the place with all the prerequisites of working-class comfort — stereo, comfy armchair, refrigerator stocked with beer. Christopher Acebo's set design is positively picturesque in its retro homeliness.

LydiaOn a mattress on the floor lies Ceci (Onahoua Rodriguez), a delicate beauty with a scar across her forehead. Sadly, the injury is more than cosmetic: For the last two years, Ceci has been reduced to a near-vegetative state from a car accident when she was in just shy of her 15th birthday.  

Ceci’s two brothers could hardly be more temperamentally different.  Misha (Carlo Albán), the youngest, is extremely sensitive; he’s a writer in-the-making and, with puberty stirring in him, an incipient lover too.  Menacing and violent, Rene (Tony Sancho), who's involved in criminal activity (possibly gay-bashing), seems mired in guilt about his sister's accident as well as something unresolved in his own identity.   

The Flores family moves in mournful circles around Ceci’s marooned and helpless body, but when the lights change in Carrillo’s poetic staging, this broken teen resumes the gift of speech and unobstructed movement. She also develops a girly, other-worldly lilt to her voice and an ability to see exactly what’s going on with everyone around her. Yet like Cassandra of ancient Greek mythology, her prophetic words aren’t easy for us to decipher. 
Sensing that it’s time to restart her working life out of the house, Rosa has announced that a maid is coming from Mexico named Lydia (Stephanie Beatriz), who’s young and just as beautiful as Ceci. Lydia needs a place to live and in exchange will anticipate the household needs and desires with an intuition that recalls all those old tales of magical nannies.  

Lydia identifies with Ceci and recognizes the blossoming of her womanhood. In fact, Lydia seems to be attuned to all of the latent sexual currents around her, an earthy wisdom that eventually provokes dangerous passion and lust as well as resentment and distrust.
Surely, there’s enough material already for several plays, but Solis grafts another limb of plot, with the issue of legal immigration coming to the fore. This occurs when cousin Alvaro (Max Arciniega) returns home from Vietnam and joins the border patrol — a choice that feels like a betrayal to the Floreses, especially because Claudio’s legal status is fuzzy while Lydia’s is being covered up by Rosa. 

Solis keeps shifting the center of his dramatic attention, as though he doesn’t want to be accused of falling into a familiar genre. If the play belonged to Misha, it could be another portrait of a writer as a young man. Rene’s homophobia propels us in one predictable direction; Ceci’s condition blows us in another. Meanwhile, the family’s social and psychological predicaments could engender any one of many issue-oriented story lines.
By not choosing, Solis eludes clichéd traps. But he also fails to fulfill the expectation that a dramatist will select and distill his life-plucked, creatively burnished data into a streamlined vision. If Solis’ scenes weren’t so rich with emotional longing and buoyant theatricality, there wouldn’t be a need to propound the point. But the fertility of his imagination — which is equally at home in Spanish or English, realism or surrealism — cries out for more discipline. 

The best thing about “Lydia” is the way it encloses the audience in its heartbroken world. And Carrillo’s cast members, while they could be better deployed to help the audience prioritize the narrative strands, do thread themselves into a convincing ensemble.

Maynard’s overworked Rosa, Beatriz’s phantom-like Lydia,  Albán's owl-faced Misha and Rodriguez’s groaning Ceci make lasting impressions in a play that all-too-generously wants to give every character his or her due.

--Charles McNulty

"Lydia,"Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 17.  $20 to $65. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. 

Top photo: Stephanie Beatriz as Lydia and Carlo Albán as Misha. Bottom photo: Onahoua Rodriguez as Ceci, Carlo Albán as Misha, Catalina Maynard as Rosa and Tony Sancho as Rene. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times