A casket stands upright at one end of the stage for “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” the Steppenwolf for Young Adults adaptation of Erika L. Sánchez’s YA novel. It’s intermittently occupied by the actor who plays Olga, the deceased older sister of teenage protagonist Julia. But even when empty, the casket remains in place; Olga’s death seems like it might come to define Julia’s life.
Sánchez, a native of Cicero and a faculty member in the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at DePaul University, set her 2017 novel in Chicago. Julia is 15 years old when Olga, seven years her senior, is hit by a car and killed. Olga, we intuit, was the “perfect” Mexican daughter — living at home, attending community college and working to help support the family. Julia, who dreams of attending a prestigious college and becoming a writer, feels like a black sheep, struggling to relate to her grieving mother and distant father.
The novel (which remains in the top 10 on the New York Times’ young-adult best sellers list more than two years after its publication) is a natural fit for Steppenwolf’s teen series; as a Chicago-set coming-of-age story, it feels like a spiritual successor to Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street,” which earned a Steppenwolf for Young Adults adaptation a decade ago, penned by playwright Tanya Saracho.
For “Perfect Mexican Daughter,” the adapter is Isaac Gómez, a rising local talent with his own strong perspective on Mexican familial expectations. (Gómez’s “The Leopard Play, or sad songs for lost boys,” a deeply personal work about sexuality and Latino masculinity, is playing at Edgewater’s Steep Theatre through March 14.)
Gómez retains the novel’s first-person point of view, allowing Julia (Karen Rodriguez) to narrate her own story as she works through her own grief while also dealing with school, college applications and her first boyfriend. Julia frequently steps outside of her present moment, even in the middle of her first kiss with Connor (Harrison Weger), to dish with the audience. In one moment that may feel familiar to fans of the TV series “Fleabag,” Connor even calls Julia out on this dissociation, which she chalks up to her writerly tendencies — she’s always observing herself, crafting her own story as she goes.
Sánchez and Gómez adeptly capture the sense of dual identity that many first-generation children of immigrants can feel. Julia is Chicago born and raised, but Connor — a well-off white boy from Evanston — still wants to know on their first meeting where she’s “from from” (a question that elicited groans from teenagers in the audience at Saturday’s opening performance). And Mr. Ingman (Peter Moore), who Julia describes as “the only white teacher I like,” encourages her to write a college application essay about her experience as a child of undocumented immigrants, without giving thought to how that might endanger her parents.
Julia’s parents are more roughly sketched. Apá (Eddie Martinez) remains a quiet cipher for most of the play, while Amá (Charín Alvarez) comes across as downright cruel, comparing Julia unfavorably to her sister, cutting her off from her friends, and eventually ripping her journal to shreds. It’s possible that we’re meant to be seeing Amá through the lens of Julia’s angsty POV, but she reads as unapologetically vicious. A revelation from Julia’s grandmother late in the play, though explicitly intended to explain why her mother is so harsh, doesn’t live up to its billing.
That exchange, part of a whirlwind trip to Mexico that comes and goes in the span of about five minutes, is a one of many subplots that rush past us in the course of Gómez’s 90-minute script. “Perfect Mexican Daughter” can feel a bit meandering at times, with beats about Julia’s attempts to uncover her dead sister’s secrets given the same weight as high-school spats. Julia’s friends Lorena (Leslie Sophia Perez) and Juanga (Robert Quintanilla) are given especially short shrift.
But the play ultimately succeeds on the strength of Rodriguez’s performance. One of the new generation of Steppenwolf ensemble members and a frequent muse for Gómez, Rodriguez is remarkably winning as she takes us into her confidence, showing the layers of hurt and hope underneath what could easily be an off-puttingly petulant character. Julia may not be perfect, but Rodriguez makes her worth rooting for.
Kris Vire is a Chicago freelance writer.