A woman in a blue satin swing dress stands on a raised circular stage. Her assistant, a man in classic coattails, emerges from her roadcase, tumbling onto the floor. She turns a red scarf into a rose, pulls doves out of thin air and makes them disappear again. The magic show is set to delightful music, the stage lit up as if a Vaudeville act. To the side of the platform, an old woman waves a black-and-white wand at the scene, rapt by the show.
“El Huracán” opens with joyous fantasy that runs throughout its production. I found myself utterly enthralled, watching for the impeccable slight of hand, attending to the show as closely as the grandmother, Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols), who watched from the stage. The date of the next scene is then projected onto the back wall: August 1992. The magicians disappear, and we are left in a cardboard box-filled house with Valeria and her daughter as well as her granddaughter. Together they are packing up Valeria’s things in preparation for a hurricane. It is revealed that Valeria has moved out of this house already and now lives with her daughter due to progressive Alzheimer’s.
Nichols played Valeria brilliantly. She engaged in repetitive motions, both chewing her gums and rubbing her fingers against one another in the air, as she tottered around stage. As someone who has watched a family member be overcome with dementia and the physicality of that disease, I was incredibly impressed by how believable I found Valeria to be.
Valeria lives in a world of memory, the lost moments of her past to which her daughter and granddaughter were never exposed. Valeria’s ability to speak in the real world is extremely limited, but within her fantasies, she conducts whole conversations, imagining herself much younger but simultaneously aware that she has a child and has become a matriarch. She repeatedly communicates with her sister, who appears in a retro bathing suit and who begs her to come out and swim. Valeria also relives romantic moments with her late husband, who we discover was her magician’s assistant before they both moved to the United States together.
The lights, sets and projections contribute to the beauty of these memory moments. The set is backed by a series of tall panels, which ring dull within the confines of the real world scenes but which light up with projections in memory. The most striking was the projection of Alicia (Jennifer Paredes), Valeria’s sister, swimming through blue, bubbling water. Paredes would run offstage through the center panel and seem to glide up onto the wall, her exits and entrances timed perfectly with the image of her body flowing across the theater.
In the real-world storyline, Valeria’s daughter Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras ’01) and her granddaughter Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio DRA ’11) clash over Miranda’s move far away from home for college. It is the typical mother-daughter fight, fraught with a need to be independent and a desire to still feel connected to home. The opening scenes of Oliveras and Lucio’s interactions contain a relatable degree of both humor and pain. Oliveras delivers an incredibly practical Ximena, efficient and dedicated to taking care of everything, motheringly hostile to Miranda and touchingly kind to Valeria. In one scene in which Valeria has a believably played panic attack, yelling and fretting around the stage, Ximena is able to hold and calm her, while simultaneously chastising her daughter for causing the anxiety.
Halfway through the play, everything changes. A dramatic and terrible mistake occurs which irrevocably tears Miranda and Ximena from one another for over two decades. This shift forward for the second half of the play is conveyed artfully as the back panels come down, revealing the ladders and pulleys of the University Theatre. The two women are undressed and redressed onstage, each given a body suit which conveys they are 27 years older. As the suit touched Oliveras’ body, transforming her into an older woman, her entire posture shifted in a striking visual transformation. The remainder of the play is about the women’s reconciliation in the wake of a second hurricane and the introduction of a fourth generation of women, Miranda’s daughter Val.
The play is beautifully crafted, a two-fold parallel narrative structured around hurricanes, and tells a funny and heart-wrenching story of family, matriarchy and the importance of memory. As Valeria loses herself, she begins to live in a fantasy world of her old life, which she then shares with her lineage through her hallucinations. Valeria’s memories of Cuba, her home country and her life, culture and status there are finally conveyed to her granddaughter, who had, until that point, never known Valeria as anything but an old woman. Similarly, in the second half of the play, Ximena begins to turn her life stories over to her daughter and granddaughter for safekeeping, ensuring that even if she loses parts of herself to this disease, her identity will live on.
The production is joyful, as well as visually and aurally enticing. The acting is stellar, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout the show. I empathized with all of the characters and experienced their pain of both losing themselves and being forgotten by the ones they love.
Carrie Maninno | firstname.lastname@example.org .