Friday, January 18, 2008


Photo/Colin D. Young

At the bend in the river where the women do their wash, sits an old woman, Sofia (Ching Valdes-Aran), the fierce and stubborn grandmother of the Fuentes family. Sitting there, she is as still as the dead tree leaning out of the river; eyes full of sadness, she looks as raw as the wooden planks that make up the river bank. She is the living embodiment of the political paradox at the heart of Ariel Dorfman's excellent play, Widows: she waits because she cannot bear waiting.

With her four missing men, a father, husband, and two children, she represents the pain and hope of the village (widows all save a priest and her thirteen-year-old grandson), a group of otherwise weak-willed women who lose themselves in the routines of labor, refusing to speak the names as if that small mercy will now allow them to trust in the very military that abducted their men. Though her own daughter, Fidelia (Ana Cruz Kayne) has turned against her, desperate to believe the Captain's (Mark Alhadeff) razor promises, she knows what comes of men who say things like: "We are ready to forgive your disobedience if you are willing to forget our stern response to it, if you learn to behave." Even when a body floats out of the river, the villagers remain shadows of themselves, fearful of the vicious Lieutenant (Guiesseppe Jones) but more so of the nameless corpse that are afraid to claim -- in yet another paradoxical moment, the climax of the play, the women chant as one: "It's mine, oh please don't let it be mine."

For a political play, Widows digs remarkably deep, following not only the deep-rooted nature of fear, but also the internal clash between the military kindness (another paradox) and brute strength, the difference between the rich landowners and the poor peasants, and the frail attempts of a woman to carry on not just tradition, but culture. To that end, Hal Brooks directs the play like a river itself, surrounding the set on three sides by the audience, and narrowing the action to a thin strip of dying land, where the butts of rifles and the faceless bodies are at their most intimidating. The action flows quickly from scene to scene, bubbling up every now and then into a most magnificent Greek chorus of rapids, a babble of insistent voices that break our hearts upon the rocks. In this sense, Brooks is able to steer clear of some of the uneven actors, overlapping their voices and plowing through where he cannot avoid the worst of it. He also knows enough to go with the flow: in Act I, Mr. Jones overflows with malicious glee and several of the weeping widows crow instead of keen, but by Act II, the solid shoulders of Mrs. Valdes-Aran and the wincing mustache of Mr. Alhadeff help them dry off.

The play wonders if it is possible to build a democracy on lies and dead bodies; the answer is no. But if you throw in a mass of wailing women; a narrow, confrontational set; logically twisted lines; and a menacing phalanx of soldiers indistinguishable from dead bodies, then you can build a stirring play.

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