BWW Review: LA RUTA at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
I left the world premiere of Isaac Gomez's LA RUTA at Steppenwolf Theatre Company with a heavy heart, yet one that was also full as I admired the immense work of the all-female Latinx ensemble. Gomez's necessarily tragic play focuses on Mexican women who live in Ciudad Juárez and have been disappearing along the bus route home from their factory jobs. LA RUTA handles its devastating subject matter with compelling gravitas (Gomez conducted several interviews to bring the play to life). Through his strong and deeply human characters, Gomez gives voice to this tragedy without ever sliding into a didactic tone.
The design elements underscore LA RUTA's chilling subject matter. Regina García's set design is anchored downstage by a number of delicate pink crosses, representing the missing women. While some of the crosses have names, many simply say "Desconocida" (Unknown), underlining the fact that many families still await news of their disappeared daughters, mothers, and sisters. Christine Pascual's costume designs build the characters' personalities. Rasean Davonte Johnson's projects allow audiences to easily navigate the play's time jumps and also underscore the reality of the story LA RUTA tells.
Director Sandra Marquez leads the cast to searing life and occasional levity. Gomez demonstrates with ample skill how the trajectory of a play should go in LA RUTA: devastation lurks in the corners of the narrative from the start, but the show itself starts on a more light-hearted note filled with warmth and friendship. In the first scene of LA RUTA, we're introduced to close friends and fellow factory workers Yoli (Sandra Delgado) and Marisela (Charín Alvarez). The two make jokes and display a rapport that conveys a longstanding friendship. Delgado and Alvarez play off each other beautifully, but soon the play's central theme comes in: we learn that Alvarez is still searching for her daughter Rubi, who disappeared some time ago. This chilling revelation sets the tone for the rest of the play, for soon we discover that Yoli's daughter Brenda (Cher Álvarez) is among the disappeared as well.
The remainder of the play jumps back and forth in time, showing us moments before and after Brenda's disappearance. In maintaining the powerful duality between some brief moments of levity and the grave nature of the terrible situation at hand, Gomez shows us scenes of everyday factory life and the strong bonds that the women of Ciudad Juárez form through their grueling, repetitive work. When Brenda arrives at the factory for her first day of work, she strikes up a quick friendship with the vivacious Ivonne (Karen Rodriguez). Rodriguez, who was named a Steppenwolf ensemble member earlier this year, is perfectly cast in the role. She's given moments to display her expert comedic chops, while also displaying a more raw, emotional side in the wake of Brenda's disappearance. Álvarez gives Brenda an inherent sweetness and determination, and these two actors establish one of the strongest dynamics in the show.
LA RUTA also makes interesting use of music, led by Laura Crotte as Desamaya in a surrogate troubadour role, and several moments of collective ensemble work. Gomez makes clear the strength of the women in this play and of the bonds and community they form together, bonds that are made yet stronger in the face of senseless tragedy. Throughout LA RUTA, this is embodied in ways large and small. One of the most chilling moments comes when Mari Marroquin in the role of Zaide asks the factory supervisor if he might consider extending the titular La Ruta just a few blocks further. She knows she's taking a risk, and it shows in her shaky but forceful delivery. Marroquin conveys such pain and fear in this moment. Alice da Cunha and Isabella Gerasole round out the cast as Women of Juárez.
While LA RUTA was hard to watch, it is necessarily that way. The ensemble never misses a beat and truly deliver some of the finest performances I've seen. Delgado particularly has a powerful turn here, as she embodies exactly how it looks to have the daughter she loves more than anything in the world go missing. Overall, Gomez's writing and the ensemble's excellent work demonstrate the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of the women in the play.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow