‘La Señorita de Tacna’: An affecting drama of family torment and family love

(Lonnie Tague) - Marian Licha (Abuela Carmen), from left, Carlos Castillo (Belisario), Luz Nicolás (Mamae) in GALA Theatre’s production of La señorita de Tacna.

(Lonnie Tague) - Marian Licha (Abuela Carmen), from left, Carlos Castillo (Belisario), Luz Nicolás (Mamae) in GALA Theatre’s production of La señorita de Tacna.

She seems a fragile support for an ambitious family canvas: this slender barefoot woman in a white nightdress, often seen huddled in a wooden rocking chair. Yet, in “La Señorita de Tacna (The Young Lady From Tacna),” the 1981 play by the Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, the vulnerable but determined spinster known as Mamae (Luz Nicolas) holds the secrets of multiple generations toward the light.

She does so indirectly and posthumously — by inspiring her much younger relation Belisario, a would-be writer. In the handsome, artfully acted production of the play now at GALA Hispanic Theatre, we glimpse Belisario (Carlos Castillo), sitting at his typewriter in a tiny, crowded office, pages of crumpled drafts littering the floor. He is striving to turn Mamae’s frustrated, romance-haunted life into a story, drawing on the tantalizing — and possibly misleading — anecdotes she was heard to relate.

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In particular, he wants to solve a few mysteries. Why did Mamae abruptly jilt her fiance Joaquin (Victor Maldonado), a handsome Chilean officer? What were her consolations afterward? And what was the truth behind the enigmatic assault on an Indian woman that has subtly shadowed the family history? As Belisario pieces together hints, when necessary relying on his imagination, the interconnected pasts of Mamae, Belisario’s grandparents Carmen and Pedro (Marian Licha and Hugo Medrano) and other family members swim into view.

In part a meditation on the nature of storytelling, Vargas Llosa’s play darts backward and forward in time, never building up much narrative drive — Belisario’s habit of interrogating and commenting on the action is a further brake on momentum — but presenting a meaty challenge to actors. The performers in the GALA production, directed by Jose Carrasquillo, rise to the occasion, shedding or packing on years, through adjustments in body language, at the drop of a hat. (The production is performed in Spanish, with English surtitles.)

Nicolas, in particular, plunges fearlessly into the frailties of her character’s youth, old age and senility. One moment, she is a timorous young woman, shrinking from the embraces of Joaquin. Then, she is an enfeebled nonagenarian with collapsed cheeks and glaring eyes, gazing confusedly at a present she no longer recognizes. Sometimes, she plays a more lucid version of aged Mamae, talking in cranky nasal tones that testify to the character’s feisty vitality.

Adding to the drama of this central performance is the starkness of the space that usually surrounds it: In contrast to the clutter of Belisario’s office, with its shelves of books and old photos, the right-hand portion of the stage embraces a long room that’s entirely bare, except for the rocking chair. Nicolas’s Mamae spends most of her time in this area, which stands in for various homes she occupies over the years. Behind the rooms, looming trees create a dreamlike landscape suggestive of memory and repressed desire. (Giorgos Tsappas designed the set, which benefits from Cory Ryan Frank’s beautiful and poignant lighting.)

Usually exuding an air of mischievous charm, Castillo’s scruffily attired Belisario wanders between and in front of the rooms, sometimes standing in for a character in Mamae’s story. (He briefly portrays a priest who hears her confess to surreptitious chocolate-eating, for instance.) Other vivid presences in the tale include the cruel beauty Carlota, who shakes up Mamae’s life in the space of minutes, and Belisario’s wan, overworked mother, Amelia: Andrea Aranguren stirringly embodies both women. (Ivania Stack designed the show’s costumes, including Carlota’s sinister scarlet gown.)

Generating one of the story’s most affecting dynamics, Licha brings out the kindly steadfastness of Carmen, who makes room in her household for her cousin Mamae when the latter’s engagement falls through and who gently reminisces about the past when the 90-something Mamae has lost touch with the present. Without stinting on the central storytelling motif, this version of “The Young Lady From Tacna” becomes very much a portrait of family torment and family love.

Wren is a freelance writer.

La Señorita de Tacna (The Young Lady From Tacna)

By Mario Vargas Llosa, directed by Jose Carrasquillo; sound design, Brendon Vierra; properties, Marie Schneggenburger¡; technical director, Andres Luque. With Tim Pabon and Oscar Ceville. In Spanish with English surtitles. (English translation by Joanne Pottlitzer.) About two hours. $38-$42. Through March 9 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-234-7174. www.galatheatre.org.

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