Expect to hear those who believe they are theater sophisticates scoffing at Teatro de la Luna's production of "Venecia," Jorge Accame's gently sweet fable. Yes, it is sentimental, and it might also be a slight tale told with humor that is sometimes rather broad. But under Mario Marcel's deft direction, "Venecia" achieves magical reality in its 90 uninterrupted minutes, a heightened sensitivity that is both heartwarming and satisfying without being cloying.
"Venecia," of course, is Venice, the Italian city of canals and gondolas, the very essence of idealized romanticism. If the city is sinking and the water is dirty, who cares? It's the idea of Venice that counts. And that is what is important to remember in Accame's story, performed here in Spanish with simultaneous English translation via headset. (American playwright Arthur Laurents provided the translation of the Argentine playwright's internationally popular work.) La Gringa (Nucky Walder) is blind, old and dying. She runs a brothel in an impoverished and remote town in the mountains of Argentina. With her time running out, she longs to visit Venice, perhaps meeting her old love, the handsome and suave Giacomo (Hernando Acuna), who once filled her head and heart with descriptions of his beautiful city. La Gringa's three women, who, in this poignant tale, are like daughters to her, seem never to have left their own mountaintop and know little of the world. But they, along with their dimwitted male friend and frequent customer Chato (Peter Pereyra), want to make La Gringa's dream come true, only to be dismayed upon discovering that the cost of airfare equals "about 700 clients," by their calculation.
The four devise a plan. They will re-create the experience of traveling to Venice right in their little sun-drenched courtyard. Using old tires, plywood boards, household appliances and buckets of water, they convince the fading matriarch she is on the plane to Italy, then riding in a Venetian gondola. Using an Italian guidebook for information, they even have her wave to the Pope and contemplate the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Both the pope and tower are really Chato.
It starts out as broadly played comedy, especially as Chato, played by Pereyra with mostly silent and exaggerated clownlike movements and expressions, assembles the "airplane" accompanied by lively, comical music. But as soon as Walder's La Gringa begins her "journey," the mood begins to gradually shift, her expression of pure joy replacing the slapstick with something more subtle and profound.
Sparked by Walder's sensitive reactions, the pretend trip steadily evolves into another level of fantasy for a finale that leaves the cast in a moving tableau and puts the audience on its feet.
The three younger ladies are played by Anabel Marcano, Claudia Torres and Muriel Alfonseca, each carving out distinctive personalities as they languidly begin another sleepy day in the village in the early minutes of the play. Their interplay, while performed mostly for laughs, especially whenever Chato is present, helps weave together the fabric of family ambiance, so important to the success of the later scenes. It is their love and imagination, neither of which is hobbled by any practical sense of the world away from their village, that helps the old woman achieve her dreams -- if they are dreams and not, as vaguely hinted, some heightened reality.
Marcel's set, a house exterior and fence flanking the well-detailed courtyard, is grounded in realistic detail and lighted by Mike Daniels with a warm, golden glow that seems both like morning sunshine and the way we might remember cherished memories.
And that's how we leave the theater, taking the warmth with us, savoring the memory.
"Venecia," performed by Teatro de la Luna, continues through June 12 at Theatre Two of the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Showtime is 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, matinees at 3 p.m. Saturdays. Performed in Spanish with simultaneous English translation via free headset. For information or reservations, call 703-548-3092 or visit www.teatrodelaluna.org.