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‘Momma's Boyz' a vivid portrait of kids in a troubled, violent world

Steve Casillas (from left) plays Mimic, Jessie David is Thug, and Marvin Quijada portrays Shine in Teatro Vista’s production of “Momma’s Boyz.”

At the heart of all great acting is a serious sense of play. And the three dynamic young actors now animating the Teatro Vista production of Candido Tirado’s “Momma’s Boyz” provide a first-rate example of precisely how this childlike, yet intensely honed element of play can work, even when it is put in the service of a deadly serious subject.

Tirado’s tragicomedy (initially set on the mean streets of New York and now “relocated” to Chicago, but sadly applicable to scores of big cities), asks a potent question: How does innocence get corrupted? How do essentially good boys – though to be sure, full of the serious mischief that is so often a by-product of ghetto life – end up selling drugs, going to jail or lying in a coffin before they’ve ever even kissed a girl or been on a plane?

To discover the answer (and it is hardly a mystery), Tirado introduces us to three guys in their late teens who have known each other since grade school and who are all more or less stuck in their lives, and their neighborhoods, despite dreams of a larger existence. He starts at the wake for one of them, and then works his way back in time, tracing the fateful decision they made at one crucial point.

Mimic (Steve Casillas, a terrific physical clown with great verbal and emotional facility), is the smartest, most prescient and most naive of the three, and he is almost saved on some level by a girlfriend, and by his exposure to an acting class that clearly taps into his natural talent for observing people and acting out.

Shine (Marvin Quijada), who has a natural, if badly misdirected entrepreneurial instinct, is skilled at selling his “plastic bags” on the street, but sees it only as a short-term means of realizing his dream of setting up a recording studio.

The aptly named Thug (Jessie David), is the most angry, volatile and unfocused of the three. He also is the one who gets hold of a gun.

Familiar story? Absolutely. But the telling of it is all here as Tirado reveals how the essential dynamic of the trio grew increasingly combustible. Although the playwright makes Mimic his slightly too articulate mouthpiece, he injects such verbal zest and ingenuity into each of his characters that their downward spiral becomes as sad as it is inevitable. And the trio of gifted actors, under Ricardo Gutierrez’s vibrant direction (on Regina Garcia’s graffiti-coated set), make the most of things as they deploy the boys’ wonderfully warped and clever pop culture references and easy interplay. Casillas is hilarious as he nurses a dislocated shoulder, while Quijada and David do a fine job with that old “playing the dozens” competition of insults.

NOTE: This production is dedicated to the memory of Maricela Ochoa, the beautiful and gifted Texas-bred actress, director, producer, writer, performer and choreographer. A founding member and associate director of Teatro Vista, Ochoa worked in many theaters in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston-Galveston and beyond, and also appeared on television and in films. She died Oct. 10 at the age of 48, after a battle with breast cancer.