Discussing her new play “The Madres,” playwright Stephanie Walker thinks back to 1980 when as a 5-year-old she first visited Argentina, a country where she had family connections. She recalls one disturbing memory from those early visits: soldiers with guns in public places.
“Buenos Aires was like a normal city but then you’d see the military,” Walker says. “They were very visible. It was an image that has always stayed with me.”
When: April 21-May 27
Where: Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln
From 1976-1983, a military dictatorship ruled Argentina. During this time an estimated 30,000 people disappeared when they refused to conform to the rules of what was called the Process of National Reorganization. One infamous torture site was located in a stately building in an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood.
“The thing to understand about this time period in Buenos Aires is that there was such a culture of silence,” Walker explains. “So many Argentines themselves didn’t believe anything bad was actually happening. Even my family there didn’t talk about it.”
In spite of the danger, it was the mothers of the disappeared who fought back by gathering every Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo to march in protest. Wearing white headscarves embroidered with the names of the missing, they called attention to the plight of their children and grandchildren.
Walker’s play recalls this time. Staged by Teatro Vista and directed by Ricardo Gutierrez, “The Madres” tells the story of three generations of these women — grandmother Josefina (Ivonne Coll), her daughter Carolina (Lorena Diaz) and granddaughter Belen (Ilse Zacharias) — and their attempt to keep their family together despite threats from the repressive government. Warning them to conform are a morally compromised priest (Ramon Carmin) and a neighborhood boy (Felipe Carrasco) now a soldier working with the government.
In 1998, Walker was living and working in Buenos Aires when a friend who was making a documentary on The Madres invited her to join in a march one Thursday.
“I was really impacted by the experience,” Walker recalls. “When I came back to the States, I would mention The Madres but most people had no idea about this period in Argentina’s history. That spurred me on to do more research.”
But it wasn’t until 2015 that she actually tackled the story of The Madres. “It just poured out of me,” recalls Walker, who grew up in suburban Barrington and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young sons.
Gutierrez feels the play is “a great celebration of women, particularly mothers and motherhood.”
“These courageous women were faced with a psychological chess match to try and determine how open and free they could be,” he says. “It makes you wonder how you would confront a similar situation. That if you do it with courage, resilience and some humor, maybe you’ll just survive.”
Cast member Coll was last seen locally in the Goodman Theatre’s 2004 staging of Luis Alfaro’s “Electricidad” and is now a regular on the telenovela “Jane the Virgin,” where she plays family matriarch Alba Villanueva.
It was during the Goodman run that she became a Teatro Vista ensemble member; the company has been trying to get her back ever since, and schedules finally aligned. In “The Madres,” Coll portrays another matriarch, Josefina, a grandmother who feels safe cocooned in her home where her knitting and detailed housecleaning bring her comfort even as what is happening around her begins to demand attention.
“What attracted me to Josefina is that she is very traditional but realizes that she has to make a decision, to take a courageous step,” Coll says. “The Madres are a force to be reckoned with. You can’t help but admire and respect them.”
First it was the mothers marching for their children, and then it became The Abuelas, the grandmothers, who through a DNA data bank began searching for their grandchildren who were taken from their imprisoned mothers as babies and given to government-friendly couples to raise. So far they have located and identified nearly 130 grandchildren; their search continues.
“I hope the play is a reminder that we really can never fall asleep at the wheel when it comes to basic human rights,” Walker says. “I hope it inspires people to look deeper into what happened in Argentina and to start paying attention to things happening in other countries. Because if you forget history, it’s bound to repeat itself.”
Mary Houlihan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.