Beguiling but Not Yet Mature 'Garcia Girls'
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Who could blame the Garcia girls for not knowing which way to turn? As novelist Julia Alvarez first revealed in her well-received 1991 novel, "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents," the sisters were wrenched from circumscribed, privileged childhoods in Rafael Trujillo's repressive Dominican Republic and moved to humbler surroundings in New York, where flower power and free love were about to open the doors of sexual permissiveness.
The playwright Karen Zacarías attempts to make palpable the contradictions -- the confusion and dislocation and exhilarating sense of liberation -- engendered for these upended young women in her admirably vigorous, if as yet a bit wobbly, stage version of the novel. The work is getting its world premiere at Round House Theatre.
The most becoming features of Blake Robison's eye-pleasing production are the portraits of the four sisters, embodied with charm and brio by Maggie Bofill, Sheila Tapia, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Veronica del Cerro. As we watch the four young actresses travel back through time in this chronologically reversed tale -- they begin as adults and end up as schoolgirls -- we do get to see them shed their complicated mature anxieties and longings and dissolve back into rambunctious, fledgling spirits, full of potential and waiting to be released into the world.
In modeling her play closely on the literary structure and style of Alvarez's incisively layered original, Zacarías has an uphill task. The novel not only hopscotches back through the years 1989 to 1956, but also constantly shifts the narrative voice. Just as the characters experience turbulence and change, so is our sense of order and perspective being challenged. At times, Alvarez employs an omniscient narrator; at others, the story is related through interior monologues by an assortment of major and minor characters.
On the stage, the episodic plotting of "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" (not to be confused with the unrelated 2005 America Ferrara flick "How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer") leaves some formidable gaps.
Stories told in reverse are all about giving context to the initial things we learn and see, and sometimes in the unfolding of this intimate scrapbook of a play, we feel as if we're being asked to pore over random snapshots.
In some other cases, an inadequacy of emotional detail dilutes the impact, too. After a fight over a homework assignment erupts between one of the girls, Fernandez-Coffey's fervent Yolanda, and Papi (the excellent Emilio Delgado), their stubborn, protective father, Papi makes amends in a way that is supposed to carry extraordinary poignancy for Yolanda. The play, however, never prepares us for the full meaning of Papi's gesture, and so a pivotal, moving payoff is neutralized. Similarly, the key scene late in the evening -- revealing why Papi must quickly flee the Dominican Republic with his family -- plays out without any of the requisite escalating tension.
Zacarías, author of last season's uneven "The Book Club Play" at Round House, manages to navigate much smoother channels when evoking more routine sorts of domestic turmoil -- when she is painting for us the interlocking alliances of the sisters, for example, or the inevitable cultural clashes with Papi and Mami (solidly essayed by Marian Licha). In distant echoes of Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," "Garcia Girls" succeeds most vividly as a bittersweet coming-of-age comedy, one not afraid to reflect on various degrees of women's grown-up disillusionments.
Many of the permutations of that disappointment, in fact, are left here to the devices of one actor, Bryant Mason. With comic aplomb, Mason plays the myriad men in the sisters' lives, from the chauvinist Island boyfriend of del Cerro's Sofia to Yolanda's one-track-minded college paramour.
As productions of "Heidi" do, director Robison here injects emblematic songs -- "Ticket to Ride," "Son of a Preacher Man" -- to define eras. (Music with Latin beats fills the scenes in the Dominican Republic.) Kate Turner-Walker's costumes offer wittily muted -- or when the occasion warrants, loud -- commentary.
It's all staged on set designer Milagros Ponce de Leon's painted platform, which has been framed by the cutout of a big tree. On a backdrop behind it, an audience sees a tenement -- a swell summation of the Garcia girls' bifurcated worldview.
The physical realm is a manifestation, too, of a line uttered by Yolanda, a budding poet and the story's central figure. "I grew up a curious woman," declares Fernandez-Coffey, the beguiling actress playing her. "A girl," she adds, "trapped in between."
The aromas of Alvarez's novel of cultural metamorphosis do at times reach us at Round House. Even so, this version of "Garcia Girls" seems to be waiting in its own sort of limbo, for a subtler and more cohesive next draft.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Karen Zacarías, based on the novel by Julia Alvarez. Directed by Blake Robison. Lighting, Beverly Emmons; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; projections, JJ Kaczynski; choreography, Karma Camp. About two hours.