The woman’s fiercely moving hands should be, by rights, at an easel. Instead, they’re peeling and slicing a root vegetable in a bowl on her lap. As the middle-aged woman, Mariela, sits up straight in a chair, finishing off her culinary chore, her young daughter, in a pink dress, twirls and cavorts nearby.
This moment from Gala Hispanic Theatre’s “Mariela en el Desierto” (“Mariela in the Desert”) captures a number of the themes that are key to Karen Zacarías’s play. Directed by Abel López, “Mariela” is a portrait of a family grappling with the burden of artistic talent in 1950s Mexico. Mariela (Luz Nicolás) and José (Roberto Colmenares) are both gifted painters. But after they marry, Mariela puts her paintbrushes aside to focus on being a mother and homemaker. In the scene in which she’s paring the vegetable, as her young daughter Blanca (Alina Collins Maldonado) frolics, you can see — especially in her darting, knife-wielding hands — how ruthlessly she has steeled herself to abandon her muse.
The scene is one of many deft sequences in this stirring production, which unfurls in a sparsely furnished house with stucco walls and a corner cluttered with old canvases and an easel. (Ruthmarie Tenorio designed the sets.) This is the desert home that Mariela and José have made for themselves following a heady interlude in Mexico City, where they hobnobbed with the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In moving to the desert, the two had sought more scope for their creativity; instead, they soon find themselves forgotten by the world. Years later, when José falls ill and the grown-up Blanca is struggling with her own artistic ambitions, the family must confront old sorrows and rehash previous decisions as a long-buried secret emerges.
With motifs that include the purpose of art, the bitterness of failure and the hard choices that have historically faced women, “Mariela” is a substantive play as well as an elegantly crafted one. And here, the play has its funny moments, too, particularly involving the crotchety impetuousness of Colmenares’s José. In one of the tale’s many flashbacks, a scorpion turns up inside the house, terrifying the young Blanca and her brother, Carlos (Miguel Alejandro Amaguaña), who stand on chairs to get out of the creature’s range. José comes in while Mariela is attacking the scorpion with a broom, and for an instant it seems as if he might help his wife. But no — wide-eyed, he scrambles up on a chair himself. (D.C.-based playwright Zacarías, who was born in Mexico, originally wrote “Mariela” in English; this production is performed in Spanish, with English surtitles.)
With her rigid posture and somber, focused air, Nicolás channels a good deal of the play’s drama and meaning. Maldonado does a fine job portraying both the fidgety young Blanca and the more physically reserved and anxious older one, and Peter Pereyra lends a courtly amiability to the role of Adam, the American art historian who is dating grown-up Blanca.
Christopher Annas-Lee’s lighting design, which ghosts the 1950s-set sequences with gray shadows and flushes the further past with brightness and brilliant colors, helps both to delineate the flashbacks and to evoke the desert beauty that has proved so bewitching to Mariela and José. “The desert is God’s canvas,” José is fond of saying, but the sounds of blowing wind, barely audible throughout most of the play, drive home the incompleteness of this aphorism. (Brendon Vierra is the sound designer.)
The desert may be hauntingly beautiful, but it also can be harsh and lonely. Of course, as Mariela knows only too well, the art world, and domestic life, can be harsh and lonely, too.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Karen Zacarías. Costume design, Brian J. Shaw; properties, Alicia Tessari. With Renate Wallenberg. In Spanish with English surtitles. Through May 10 at Gala Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or 202-234-7174 or visit www.galatheatre.org. Tickets, $20 to $42. Two hours.