In Benjamin Benne’s Alma, the title character is a Latina mother illegally in America just as Trump rises to power, and if you remember his opening salvo in that 2016 campaign about Mexican immigrants (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”) then you already know what’s on her mind. Her concerns, though, are not for herself (she assumes she will end up being deported); they are for her daughter Angel, a natural-born American with whom she shares a tiny La Puenta, CA apartment. Alma only wants to make sure Angel will be OK when she is gone.
Benne opens with a quick recap, through sound, light, and projected captions, of the history of the region, a history rife with war, slavery, conquistadors, and other problems that the indigenous peoples had to face. It’s a startling and unexpected opening, and it puts Alma’s issues into historical perspective: she and those like her are just the latest victims of the struggle for control over this land. Director Anna Velazquez, sound designer Erik Backus, and lighting designer Rachel West destabilize us with this stark review, and the result is that we are as off-balance as Alma is when the lights come up and the scene starts.
As Alma, Jazmin Corona is highly sympathetic and relatable. Her portrayal will be familiar to anyone who has ever parented a teenager: that constant love/hate struggle between wanting them to succeed on their own and knowing that they still make stupid, childish decisions. In this case, Angel (Bryanna Ciera Colón) has made a decision that echoes her mother’s fears while undermining her plans: she has decided not to take the SAT—crisis: it is supposed to be tomorrow—and not to apply to a four-year college. Alma wanted her to be set in her life in case she can’t be there to help anymore; Angel sees that same potentiality and comes to a very different conclusion: she does not want to be far away at UC Davis if something were to happen to her mother.
Though the play starts with these two at odds, the essential love between them is never in doubt for a moment thanks to Corona and Colón, who are careful to maintain the underlying mother-daughter connection even in the middle of a nasty row. Every decision each has made has the other in its center, though these decisions clash, at times, utterly. Neither is fully right or fully wrong; they are merely trying to make the best of a situation in which both are aware of the cards stacked against them. (These metaphorical card stacks make a physical appearance as the flip cards each uses to quiz the other once things settle down: Angel’s are vocabulary cards, though she protests again and again that the SAT no longer has a vocabulary section; Alma’s are for her eventual citizenship test.)
One lovely manifestation of the tender relationship between Alma and her daughter is the growing list of Angel’s desires they have been honing since the girl was in middle school. (Love, health, and money lead it off, but it also gets specific and personal.) Currently, there are seventeen items on it, some of which are addenda and clarifications of earlier ones. The two clearly have spent a lot of time over the years going over the list, which Angel thinks is too influenced by her mother’s dreams for her. But as they snuggle against each other, Angel holding a toy elephant Alma has given her (the bond between a mother elephant and her offspring even survives death) and getting her mom to sing to her, they are as close as it is possible to be.
The apartment, with a tiny kitchen and a pull-out sofabed, is realistically rendered by Tara A. Houston, but the play’s dive into expressionism doesn’t end with that nearly surreal introduction. Throughout the play, Alma struggles with a TV remote control that seemingly has a life of its own and amplifies her worries and her nerves. The sky outside, visible through the window, remains stubbornly orange—Angel even comments on it—no matter what time of day it is. Alma’s scream at one point seems to black out the entire town. Lit candles weirdly go out. There is nothing (except maybe the remote control) that cannot be explained away—I mean the blackout/scream timing was probably a coincidence, right?—but the sum of it all is the clear knowledge that, as with Trump and ICE, there are many things beyond their control.
Benne has written the play’s dialogue in English with a certain amount of Spanish mixed in, as would likely be the way it goes in such a household. You don’t need to know Spanish, though, to see it. Everything is very clear even if not all of the words are. In the end, this is a love story between a mother and her daughter, and that works in any language.
Alma is presented by American Blues Theatre and runs through Oct 22 at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave, Chicago. For tickets and information, please visit American Blues Theatre or call (773) 654-3103. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.