“La Gringa” is the third play in a series of four that has been labeled "The American Melting Pot” as its theme for the 2014–2015 CV REP season. It’s an exploration of four distinct cultures from the pens of four critically-acclaimed playwrights. The first two plays dealt with Jewish culture in America, and then African-American culture. Now comes Hispanic-American culture.
This charming comedy-drama, written by Carmen Rivera and insightfully directed by CV REP founding artistic director Ron Celona, explores the vexing Puerto Rican-American experience and the feeling of not belonging in one’s own country. It’s frustrating and alienating to be labeled an “outsider when in reality you’re an “insider.” This is the situation and dilemma that American-born Maria Elena Garcia, a vivacious, high-energy, up beat dreamer, (wonderfully played by Ayanery Reyes) finds herself in when she visits Puerto Rico over the Christmas holidays. She even has thoughts of not only of reconnecting with her mother’s relatives but is toying with the idea of staying. With Reyes’ 5000-watt smile and winning onstage manner, whatever decision she makes regarding Maria will be the right one.
The play centers on the relatives and how each one interacts with Maria, trying hard not to let those pesky venal sins of envy and pride get in the way of their relationships. Her no-nonsense Aunt Norma Burgos, (an excellent Marina Re) has been estranged from Maria’s mother over the ownership of the family home. Norma’s husband Victor (nicely played by Robert Almodovar) is a sensible man who understands his wife’s moods and plays the role of family peacemaker. Iris Burgos (a lovely Kyla Garcia), Maria’s cousin, is at a loss as to why Maria is so enamored of Puerto Rico. “There are no jobs available here only tropical heat and mosquitos. Why would you want to move here?” In addition, Maria is considered an American in Puerto Rico – a Gringa. After a while Maria realizes that if she’s a Puerto Rican in the United States and an American in Puerto Rico, she must be nobody everywhere else.
This flawed thinking is dispelled when her Uncle Manolo (charmingly played by Peter Mins) takes charge. When she arrives he has been bedridden for five years, claiming to Norma that he is dying. Once Maria settles in, however, he appears to experience a “medical epiphany” of sorts and begins to show her the real beauty of Puerto Rico and the lessons of life lived by its people. Local farmer Ramon “Monchi” Reyes (Eliezer Ortiz), Manolo’s young friend, becomes smitten with Maria during the time that he and the wise and colorful Manolo tour her around the island.
The characters all have their moments to shine in this tender ensemble story. Reyes, Re, and Mins, in particular, have powerful onstage memorable moments. Thanks to the technical team at CV REP, the Puerto Rico set design by Jimmy Cuomo, and lighting design by Eddie Cancel, is nicely realized. The wonderfully colorful costumes of Aasla Lee are spot-on, along with the sound from top-tier designer Cricket S. Meyers. An extra kudo goes to Eliezer Ortiz for his dialect coaching.
Family and love of their language runs deep in the DNA of Latinos and Hispanics. The power of family is transformative in their culture. Puerto Rico may be 3300 miles from California, but audiences here can definitely relate to the issues and the characters in Rivera’s poignant play.
“La Gringa” performs at CV REP Theatre in Rancho Mirage and runs through March 22, 2015.