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Theater Night: Love

Intro: February is the month of love. As plush crimson boxes of chocolate fill grocery store shelves, it can be easy to forget that love comes in many forms: The achingly unreciprocated love for the past, the love that results from being vulnerable and sharing trauma with a stranger, or the fraying love that binds a family together.

This month’s column examines theater that dissects love in all its varied colors and textures. Read on for our curated selection.

On Right Now

Las Hermanas Palacios, GALA Hispanic Theatre
Showing 5 Feb – 25 Feb
www.galatheatre.org

It’s 1980s Miami and the Medellín Cartel runs the city. Like Batman’s fictional Gotham, the streets run with blood as a rising tide of illegal drugs fuel an excess of violence, murder and flashy gangster lifestyles. In the midst of this mayhem, over 100,000 Cubans arrive on Miami’s shores.

This is the setting for Cuban-American playwright, author and academic Cristina García’s new work Las Hermanas Palacios. García and Director Adrián Alea’s shared love for Russian author Anton Chekhov’s early 20th Century play Three Sisters – and García’s stint as Bureau Chief in Miami for TIME Magazine in the mid 1980s – were the sparks that inspired this tale of the love between siblings that yearn for a fabled homeland that never really existed.

“The play was inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters, in which there’s a lot of love and a fair amount of betrayal that skewers and undermines the love and solidarity of this otherwise close family. I tried to keep close to those ideas.” explains García as she sketches out the relationship between Cuban-Americans Olga, Maria, Irinita and their brother Andrés in the play. “The various colors of love that each of the three sisters and the brother represent are braided sometimes uneasily and sometimes quite naturally. That chafing against what they are navigating as immigrants is a challenge to all of them. Each of them deals with the love and the nostalgia and the future that is bearing down on them in very distinct ways.”

A deep, unrequited love and longing for a rosy past embroidered by memory is the link with Chekhov’s original work that García says herself and Alea worked on developing in Las Hermanas Palacios. “We felt in writing the script that it was a conversation not just with Chekhov but with all immigrants, with all people experiencing dislocation and trying to reconcile their pasts with their present.”

Written by García in English and translated into Spanish by Achy Obejas, García’s play couldn’t be more topical as a storm of social and political debate centred on America’s immigration and border policies currently rages across party lines.

In The Spotlight

Next to Normal, Round House Theatre with Barrington Stage Company
Showing 24 Jan – 25 Feb

This month, Barrington Stage Company’s Alan Paul is directing the Round House Theatre’s production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. Originally staged in 2008, the play is an intimate portrayal of mental illness and its impact on a suburban American family. We sat down with Tracy Lynn Olivera and Kevin Stephen McAllister – playing wife Diana and husband Dan Goodman respectively – to chat about how the theme of love winds its way through this perennially relevant piece of theater.

How does Next to Normal portray family love?

Tracy: I think love is a choice. You have to choose it all the time. I think Dan especially makes that choice over and over again.

Kevin: The play is both the good side and the messed up side of family love. I think the idea of family is so layered. The show is about how you navigate different personalities, different energies, different medications, different levels of attraction.

Does Diana and Dan’s relationship exemplify an ideal of married love?

Kevin: I think what the play does really well is that it gives you a glimpse of what brought them into marriage, and then it leaps forward and shows you what can happen over time. Dan and Diana represent a lot of marriages. Dan sings about a promise he made to stay true, but he never says ‘I still love you.’ They’re a good example of what can happen if you don’t speak your truth in a marriage.

In what way does the play highlight America’s love for medical interventions?

Tracy: I think medicine can be magical. It can be completely life changing. But as a society we tend to throw medicine at problems instead of getting to the root of the issue. In this particular instance, that’s what happens with Diana.

Kevin: I used to teach in the public school system. I used to deal with a lot of kids, and their answer right away was ‘I have ADHD. I’m on Ritalin.’ You know they’re taking something because their personality is gone. They’re not processing. Sometimes the answer is to just jump to medication. This play comes down heavily on what we’re putting into our bodies and why.

Why does Next to Normal continue to have such relevance to contemporary audiences all over the world?

Kevin: Mental Health has become such a major issue in the last five or six years, especially since the pandemic, so I think people are paying more attention to self. This show still resonates because it really is big on choice.

Tracy: This play is about people fighting really hard to be OK. Everyone in this piece is trying to get to the same thing, which is to love and be loved. That’s the beauty of this to me.

Catch Before Closing

Shutter Sisters, 1st Stage
Showing 1 Feb – 18 Feb
www.1ststage.org

The transformative power of love is on full display in playwright Mansa Ra’s Shutter Sisters, a story about two women – Mikal and Michael – who embark on new chapters of life as one becomes an empty-nester while the other attends her adoptive mother’s funeral. Ra’s work is informed by the concept of Black Radical Love, or the notion that collective love and care between Black people can be an act of resistance. Love, believes Ra, is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.

Shutter Sisters: Tonya Beckman (L) and Deidra LaWan Starnes (R) in Shutter Sisters, by Mansa Ra. Directed by Eric Ruffin. Photo: Teresa Castracane.

Deidra LaWan Starnes plays Mikal, who has more in common with Michael than may initially appear. “The complexity of these women’s lives is what makes them so similar in their journeys. Their journeys are sparked by wanting this love, this sense of being and belonging,” says Starnes. “I feel that what these women so desperately want is roots and security and stability.” Tonya Beckman agrees that her character Michael is dealing with issues that mirror those of Mikal. “On the surface, Mikal and Michael seem like very different women but they have so many commonalities. They are more alike than they are different.”

Shared love, care and commitment – the central tenets of Black Radical Love – seem to have characterized the working process leading up to opening night, as both Beckman and Starnes attest. “It’s been very easy to be open and honest.” Beckman says. “It’s a group of such kind, loving people. There was a sense of trust immediately. It allows for conversation that usually takes much longer to arrive at.” Starnes concurs: “It can take a while before people get vulnerable, but I feel like we jumped in and threw our hearts into this from the first day.”

These powerhouse actors are on stage together for the first time in this production – despite sharing a long professional history – so audiences can look forward to the type of chemistry, vulnerability and love that only comes from performers being familiar with each other.

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