BWW Review: Nashville Children's Theatre's World Premiere of RETURN TO SENDER Hits Close to Home in These Troubled Times
Marisela Trevino Orta Adapts Heartfelt Play Based on Julia Alvarez's Book
As the lights came up in Nashville Children's Theatre's Ann Stahlman Hill Theatre at the conclusion of Return to Sender - the world premiere production of Marisela Trevino Orta's adaptation of Julia Alvarez's novel of the same name, now onstage at NCT through October 27 - the familiar "ding" of an alert emanated from my iPhone: A judge had ruled against a Trump administration initiative to refuse entry to immigrants who might find themselves dependent upon public assistance while they pursue their own version of the American dream.
The irony of such an alert - about this or countless other attempts by an administration bent upon admitting only the "right" kind of immigrants to this country - was not lost on me, particularly after watching a play for younger audiences that includes a frank and direct discussion of the plight of undocumented workers, with an onstage raid by ICE agents that sends chills through the hearts of every person in the audience, in this country, who has one.
Created for younger audiences, the power found in Orta's adaptation of Alvarez's story is ageless and it packs such an emotional wallop that audience members of any age can feel the impact of the words therein, identifying with the fictionalized characters who are authentic and genuine. As a result, no one can leave the theater without their preconceived notions - whatever they may be going in - challenged by what happens onstage.
Like all good theater, Return to Sender makes every audience member think, to consider what their own actions might be if faced with events such as those endured by the play's characters and challenged to do better in their own lives. It's weighty material, to be certain, yet it continues Nashville Children's Theatre's mission to illuminate the human experience for audiences of all ages and it is a theatrical endeavor that anyone who loves live performance should see for themselves before the show's all-too-brief run ends.
The show's pervasive themes of love and family guarantee that audiences will find much with which to identify, allowing the plight of undocumented workers to hit home with more sensitivity than might be expected.
Directed by Crystal Manich, Return to Sender is a co-commission of NCT and Vanderbilt University's Center for Latin American Studies as the second work from NCT's Hatchery program. Focusing on the Cruz family, originally from Mexico (the parents, their oldest daughter Mari and Uncle Tio were born there, while their two younger daughters, Ofie and Luby were born in the U.S.), who must travel north to Vermont for work on a dairy farm in dire straits due to the lack of available and willing workers to keep the agricultural business afloat.
When first we encounter 11-year-old Mari (played with tremendous heart by Amanda Rodriguez), she is writing a letter to her mother (who has gone missing after making the dangerous trip back home to be with her own mother as she lay dying), sharing the day-to-day details of her life while expressing the never-ending ache of missing someone she loves deeply and endlessly - which allows her audience complete and total access to the depth of her feelings. As she becomes friends with Tyler Paquette (Lane Williamson delivers a multi-faceted portrayal as the 11-year-old boy), we become even more acutely aware of the realities of life for the undocumented in this country: they are people who long for the same things, who have the same hopes and dreams, as everyone who has ever uprooted their lives and set off in search of a better way of life.
As the Cruz family journeys northward we witness the daily challenges of their undocumented lives and, as the story unfolds, we watch as the farming family of the Paquettes undergo their own challenges, seeking to do the right thing and recognizing the difficulties of contemporary farming. Return to Sender is an eye-opening, edifying experience, brought to life by an amazing ensemble of actors under Manich's artful and focused direction.
Lilliana Gomez and Erica Lee Haines are terrific as Mari's American-born little sisters, while Matthew Martinez Hannon and Claudia Quesada are ideally cast as their devoted parents. As the girls' Uncle Tio, Matthew Benenson Cruz delivers an understated performance, while Cheryl White, Christopher Strand and Denice Hicks play the older members of the Paquette family with an authentic, strongly familial intensity. Galen Fott and DeYonte Jenkins complete the cast, each man playing a variety of roles integral to the story being told onstage.
Scott Leather's beautifully designed set and lighting provides the actors with an ideal space in which to tell their story, while David Weinstein's impressive sound design ensures every word is heard in the quieter moments and providing a more dramatic aural sensation when the script demands it. Maranda DeBusk's remarkable projection design help to create a sense of time and place necessary for the play's dramatic arc and underscores the epistolary nature of Orta's play.
Return to Sender. By Marisela Trevino Orta. Based on the novel Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez. Directed by Crystal Manich. Presented by Nashville Children's Theatre. Through October 27. For details, go to www.NashvilleCT.org or call (615) 254-9103. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (with no intermission).