Tensions mount, treachery abounds as desperate brothers battle the world and each other in ‘Last Hermanos’

The new thriller from Exal Iraheta at A Red Orchid Theatre delivers an eye-level thriller about three souls on treacherous paths.

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Roberto Jay (left) and Esteban Andres Cruz star as two brothers dealing with life-changing decisions in “Last Hermanos” at A Red Orchid Theatre.

Roberto Jay (left) and Esteban Andres Cruz star as two brothers dealing with life-changing decisions in “Last Hermanos” at A Red Orchid Theatre.

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One can be forgiven if the first reaction, after climbing down into this claustrophobic pocket space in the Old Town area, is that a local theater company has let itself go.

There’s litter everywhere. You’re inside a tiny dustbin, apparently abandoned, littered with crumbling shards in what once was ... what? You think about lice.

But this is A Red Orchid, the Chicago company renowned for producing theater on the edge. You’re already inside the world premiere of “Last Hermanos” as you enter. The decrepit space looks to be some kind of visitor center, once. There’s a flag with a lone star, a tattered map on the wall. Are those old chips bags on the floor? Is that grass growing through the floorboards? Is that just junk or a shoe? Scenic designer Mara Ishihara Zinky has left provocative clues. Pay attention to these signs of feckless hanging out, of waiting, of haste. You’re locked in for a Becket-like ride.

‘Last Hermanos’

last hermanos review

When: Through June 12

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.

Tickets: $30-$40

Info: aredorchidtheatre.org

Run time: 100 minutes, no intermission

“Last Hermanos” is a significant new work by the thirtysomething Salvadoran-American playwright Exal Iraheta, once a Houstonian, now Chicago-based. This huge talent has been nurtured along his way by a number of Chicago-area institutions including Northwestern University, the Art Institute of Chicago, and development programs at Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens. The show itself has been in development with Red Orchid for many months now, from draft, to an audio drama tryout at the height of COVID, back to draft and now officially the world premiere starring Esteban Andres Cruz and Roberto Jay as brothers in flight.

The situation is suspenseful, but not without humor, at least at the start. Things aren’t looking good, though. Miguel, a well-spoken teacher-type, is a Latino man of middle age. His younger brother Julio, an impulsive hotshot, is with him at the Mexican border inside the U.S. They’re waiting for someone, but their stories, it soon becomes clear, are not the same. The elder one seems legally a U.S. citizen. The younger is a nervous bucket of bravado. What they want to do is unclear at first.

Chris Sheard (left) and Esteban Andres Cruz are among the cast of “Last Hermanos” at A Red Orchid Theatre.

Chris Sheard (left) and Esteban Andres Cruz are among the cast of “Last Hermanos” at A Red Orchid Theatre.|

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An unexpected visitor arrives, not a Latino. He seems to have a military background and is interested in helping, although he betrays an increasing agitation. He’s also packing a pistol. In Iraheta’s deliberately ambiguous play, which has been directed by Ismaela Lara Jr., to be tense with stretches of uncertainty, the clues are ferreted out only as confusion climbs.

The experience called to mind a bucolic CNN video slideshow from 2013, eerily bucolic, shot from high above the earth, entitled “This is what the US-Mexico border looks like.” This play’s perspective is pretty much the opposite. The Texas sun is hot. The players are wet and desperate. Their story is a complex, eye-level thriller about three separate souls on treacherous paths. But it is also oddly beautiful.

Cruz, Berwyn-born and Cicero-raised, is solid as Miguel, the play’s anchor. The actor is an elegant veteran of Chicago area theaters, with regional credits from Pasadena to Off Broadway. Miguel is married and used to taking responsibility, and now trying his best to keep the impulsive younger brother from sabotaging himself as they wait, and wait some more, to carry out their plan. Cruz is a quiet standout here, touching as the most solid character, with perhaps the most to lose.

Miguel’s endearing younger brother Julio is played by Roberto Jay, who has also been working in other local theaters and sports some film and TV credits as well. Jay is persuasive here as the impulsive hot rod, seemingly Miguel’s opposite, almost electrified by the sweltering heat that seems to drown Miguel.

Rounding out the trio is the Caucasian called Shepherd, smartly played by Chris Sheard as a crafty, elusive game-changer. Shepherd sneaks in late to the brothers’ hiding place, and to the play itself, catching Miguel by surprise. When the alarmed academic clumsily pulls out a “pretty big knife,” as the invader mockingly calls it, Shepherd counters with a wave of his Beretta.

Then begins an expert unraveling by Iraheta, whose play keeps us guessing to the end.

Shepherd is just looking to hook up, he says, to cross the border. He reveals that his wife, who’s undocumented, went ahead to Mexico with their two boys, and he’s trying to get to them, but it’s complicated. He wants to cross but it needs to be undercover. He can tell that the brothers are in a holding pattern, too. Maybe they should throw in together, provide each other some cover. Maybe. Miguel admits his guides have not shown up and Shepherd stresses how much danger is in the shadows. Especially in the drones above.

As to just what the real danger truly is for the brothers, you won’t get that from me.

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