Luis Alfaro has the affable charisma of someone you can imagine knocking back a few beers with. He’s easy-going congeniality personified, and as he starts in on the new version of his autobiographical and one-man show “St. Jude,” he draws you in with his laid-back, personable charm.
When: Through June 3
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
That initial feel-good friendliness of “St. Jude” makes the harrowing tale that follows all the more impactful. The 65-minute monologue, part of the Up Close & Personal series at Victory Gardens, starts as a road trip through sunny California. Just as you’ve settled comfortably in, “St. Jude” begins its descent into loss and addiction. There’s redemption in “St. Jude” as well, but it’s hard-won and – like real-life redemption – it’s achingly incomplete. As Alfaro makes clear in this riveting solo spot, life – and death – carry on apace on whether or not you’ve settled your accounts with traumas past.
In telling the story of the last year of his beloved father, Alfaro goes deep into his own past and illuminates the alternately scarring and joyful events that helped define him as a man and an artist. Throughout, “St. Jude” has the propulsive momentum of a well-made play and the vivid rhythms of an epic poem.
The piece also has a hallowed feel to it. Punctuated by nine “readings” and interspersed with old-time hymns, “St. Jude” deliberately evokes the structure of the Roman Catholic mass and the wild passions of a tent revival. “St. Jude” isn’t a religious story, but it’s steeped in Alfaro’s childhood as the son of a devout Catholic father and a Pentecostal Protestant mother. When Alfaro talks of his bi-religious upbringing – speaking in tongues one Sunday, participating in the rigid rituals of High Latin Mass the next – it’s with cinematic flair.
He also deftly describes a childhood where migrant work was as defining as Sunday services. As “St. Jude” unspools, a childhood that’s part part Norman Rockwell and part “The Grapes of Wrath” starts to emerge.
Alfaro illuminates the impact of religion on his young life with a segment that’s as hilarious as it is disturbing. In fourth grade, he recalls, he came home from school to find his house empty. Alfaro drew the only logical conclusion: The rapture had come. He’d been left behind. What followed became a defining moment in Alfaro’s relationship with his father. It’s a deeply personal anecdote, and one that Alfaro delivers without an ounce of sentimentality. There’s no treacle here, but there is enough heart-felt emotion to lodge a lump in your throat.
If Alfaro’s father is the hero of “St. Jude,” his uncle is the sinister source of nightmares. “Hector,” as Alfaro describes him, came back from Viet Nam a monster. Too young to defend himself, Alfaro became a repository for all of Hector’s demons. The vet literally muzzled Alfaro through years of potentially deadly abuse. Alfaro ran away at 16, and embraced an orgy of drugs, sex, binge-eating and profound emptiness.
Alfaro relays all of this with heart-wrenching clarity. When he speaks of endless nights of anonymous sex, it’s with a sense of profound sorrow: “I just want to make night last into day.” That, of course, he cannot do.
But amid all the self-destruction, Alfaro holds on to memories of his father and his father’s love. And when Alfaro Sr. check s into St. Jude hospital with a potentially fatal heart infection, the son is there to help him through.
In lesser hands, “St. Jude” would quickly become maudlin. That never happens in Alfaro’s sharp, uncompromising narrative. As both a writer and a performer, Alfaro doesn’t sugarcoat his own brokenness. Nor does he provide a tidy, happy ending. Uncle Hector never pays for his crimes – he’s never even confronted with them. Alfaro is left to spend his life dealing with their impact.
Alfaro isn’t afraid to get down in the muck, be it the literal dust and dirt of California’s picking fields or the metaphorical darkness that accompanies addictions. He finds beauty in both places.
In telling the story of Alfaro and his father, “St. Jude” captures both the beauty and the grit of two remarkable men.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.