In ‘The Abuelas,’ aftershocks of Argentina’s Dirty War are felt in Chicago

SHARE In ‘The Abuelas,’ aftershocks of Argentina’s Dirty War are felt in Chicago
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Katie Barberi (left) plays Soledad and Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel is her daughter Gabriela in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Stephanie Alison Walker’s “The Abuelas.” | Joel Maisonet

Last spring, Teatro Vista staged Stephanie Alison Walker’s “The Madres,” a play inspired by the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The military junta waged a campaign known as the Guerra Sucia — the Dirty War — against leftists and other suspected political opponents; as many as 30,000 dissidents were “disappeared.”

‘The Abuelas’ ★★★ When: Through March 17 Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Tickets: $20 – $35 Info: teatrovista.org Run time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission

Las Madres de la Plaza del Mayo was the collective name for the movement of mothers of the disappeared, who gathered for weekly protests in Buenos Aires’s public square, showing their solidarity by wearing bright white headscarves. “The Madres” focused on one fictional family of women: Belen, newlywed and pregnant, is among those who’ve gone missing, along with her husband, Agustin. Belen’s mother, Carolina, has joined Las Madres’ protests — attracting scrutiny that Carolina’s mother, the widowed Josefina, would rather avoid.

Teatro Vista was one of four theater companies across the country to produce “The Madres” last season; as part of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” program, Walker’s play had stagings in Los Angeles, San Diego and Austin all in the same span of time. But Teatro Vista gets exclusive dibs on Walker’s follow-up, “The Abuelas.”

While it could be called a direct sequel to “The Madres,” “The Abuelas” — which translates to “the grandmothers” — also stands solidly on its own. The previous play’s Carolina and Belen both reappear, after a fashion, but as with Ike Holter’s soon-to-conclude “Rightlynd Saga” of interconnected Chicago plays, the overlap between “The Madres” and “The Abuelas” is more like a set of Easter eggs for those audience members who’ve seen both. You’ll be at no disadvantage if you go into “The Abuelas” without having caught its predecessor.

“The Abuelas” is set in Chicago in 2016, 37 years after the action of “The Madres.” The setting is the Lake Shore Drive high-rise apartment belonging to Gabriela (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) and Marty (Nate Santana). Gabriela is an Argentinian-born musician who — we’re repeatedly told — is the first female principal cellist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Marty is a rising-star architect working on a new skyscraper that will transform the skyline.

Gabriela and Marty have an infant son, Lucas, and a persistent houseguest: Gabriela’s mother, Soledad (Katie Barberi), who arrived for a visit from Buenos Aires three months ago and stayed to save the day when Lucas’s nanny pulled a vanishing act. Soledad has a wearying penchant for dramatics, and her presence in the small apartment is taking a toll on her daughter and son-in-law’s nerves. (Barberi, a Mexican-American actress with a long string of telenovelas on her résumé, clearly knows her way around playing a put-upon diva type.)

As the play opens, Gabriela and Marty are preparing to host Soledad’s birthday party. Soledad has invited exactly one guest, Cesar (Esteban Schemberg), a fellow Argentinian she met at church. But Cesar shows up with another friend in tow, an older woman named Carolina (Alba Guerra) who nearly faints upon being introduced to Gabriela.

Carolina also insists upon Cesar telling the story of learning, as a teenager, that the parents he knew were not his biological parents; he was a “child of the disappeared,” the babies who were born in captivity and given to military-friendly families while their birth mothers were murdered. Las Abuelas del Plaza de Mayo, a sister organization to Las Madres, has spent decades searching to find the hundreds of such children who were kidnapped and re-homed.

Walker frankly takes too long to establish the central conceit of “The Abuelas.” It’s a good 45 minutes in before you could begin to figure out where we’re headed — and then as soon as the mystery reveals itself, it’s all too quickly resolved by the end of the first act.

The second act, then, becomes entirely about how the various characters react to the previous revelations. There’s valuable stuff to be found there: Gonzalez-Cadel, an actor of extraordinary compassion and warmth, makes the best of the hackneyed situation Walker places Gabriela in, and that leads to some really moving scenes between Gonzalez-Cadel and Santana as their characters do the hard work of marriage.

The presence of Belen, who appears in a series of visions to Gabriela (and in a gratuitous flashback at the top of Act II), feels more like a writerly move to allow Ilse Zacharias to reprise her role from Teatro Vista’s production of “The Madres” than a dramaturgical necessity. The character’s mystical-ish visits impede upon the play’s generally naturalistic bent. Gabriela has enough unexpected visitors to handle, without also having to reckon with ghosts.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.

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