At the Antaeus Theatre in Glendale, a family struggles to face a brutal revelation as the dark legacy of the “Disappeared” reveals a hidden identity and a tragic reality.
By John Lavitt
Glendale, California (The Hollywood Times) 10/29/2019 – The West Coast premiere of “The Abuelas” at the Antaeus Theatre in Glendale is both hard to watch and essential to see. As directed by Andi Chapman, Stephanie Alison Walker’s play is a modern tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. Once you reveal an evil truth, there is no way to completely fix the devastation left behind in personal lives. How do you return to any sense of normality when your normative has been shattered?
With performances continuing until Thanksgiving near the end of November, it feels strangely appropriate to be reviewing this play tonight. I am fasting for sixteen hours today and every night for the next month or so. I am not fasting because I am a prisoner being denied food or because I am protesting the detainment of migrant families and the separation of children from their parents by the vile Trump administration. No, I merely am trying to lose some extra pounds in my middle age, but it seems appropriate at this moment. The hunger and the emptiness reflect the experience of “The Abuelas.” From a visceral perspective and quite literally as well, can we stomach the character’s emotions as a false reality falls apart?
The Abuelas tells the story of Argentina’s “Dirty War” that began in 1976 when a military regime unlawfully seized power in the country and imposed a violent regime controlled by a military junta or dictatorship. From 1976 until it fell in 1983, over 30,000 Argentinian citizens vanished. A percentage of “the disappeared” were pregnant women who were forced to have their babies in captivity. After giving birth, the newborns were taken from the mothers and given to favored families that could not have children for one reason or another. As for the mothers, these innocent women were drugged, then thrown from airplanes into the sea. The Spanish word for grandmother, the “Abuelas” fought to find and recover their stolen grandchildren lost in this “Dirty War.” The bereft women dreamed of giving these lost children the freedom to reclaim their true identities.
According to “The Children of the Dirty War,” a 2012 article in The New Yorker by Francisco Goldman about the repercussions and reverberations of the murders and the abductions, the following facts are true:
Approximately thirty percent of the disappeared were women. Some were abducted with their small children, and some, perhaps three percent, were pregnant, or became so while in detention, usually through rape by guards and torturers. Pregnant prisoners were routinely kept alive until they’d given birth. “The regime’s depravity reached its outer limit with pregnant detainees,” Marguerite Feitlowitz, then a Harvard professor, wrote in her groundbreaking study of the Argentine nightmare, “Lexicon of Terror” … They presented a truly sickening combination—the curiosity of little boys, the intense arousal of twisted men.”
Beyond the clear ability of Stephanie Alison Walker to expose such a storyline without so much as blinking, the play is bolstered by nuanced performances by the entire cast. As the Chicago couple trying to hold on to their marriage, the Argentinian cellist, Gabriela (Luisina Quarleri), and her American husband, Marty (Seamus Dever), are the emotional anchors at the narrative’s center. After all, the majority of the story takes place in their high-rise apartment that has a cold and snowy view of a distant, almost desolate park in Chicago. Together, with Denise Blasor as Gabriela’s visiting mother, Soledad, they strive for a normative reality that is soon to be lost.
There is a trauma looming so immense that nothing normal will survive. Once the ugliness is revealed, the stain spreads, and everything is affected. Nothing withstands the impact of such fractures, of a shattering that disrupts all past equilibrium. Within the family structure, any small lie or unrelated indiscretion that felt small before suddenly becomes magnified in the unforgiving glare of atrocity. Very little manages to survive such extreme revelation. Indeed, there is no avoiding collateral damage.
In supporting parts, both David DeSantos as César and Irene De Bari as Carolina help take the production to the next level of veracity with their potent performances. As visitors to the Chicago home on Soledad’s birthday, they bring forth the unexpected. In his first scene, David DeSantos is particularly adept at walking a tight rope of conflicting emotions. Although he knows where his path must take him, his kindness pushes him to swerve right or left. The character’s past experiences bring forth the awareness that the realization of atrocity, even when it illuminates, brings forth terrible trauma. As an actor, David DeSantos subtly expresses this cognizance to the audience.
If you appreciate a poignant modern drama, there is no reason not to venture to the Antaeus Theatre in Glendale and see “The Abuelas” during this West Coast run of the play. From the quality of the writing to the talented dedication of the ensemble, the play manages to tell a storyline that needs to be heard today in America. Is our country today not committing similar sins that led to the plight of these innocent women and these shattered families? Does it matter whether or not these human beings are citizens? In the end, the inhumanity is the same, and the stain on a country’s conscience will not easily be removed.