Review by Gillian Daniels
(Cambridge) In one of Widows most wrenching scenes, Fidelia Fuentes (Mariagrazia LaFauci) struggles to figure out how to tell the story of her father’s disappearance. She starts by talking about a bird, then starts again by describing how soldiers kicked down the front door, and then talks about flying. The narrative spins and, it seems, so does she. With each false start, Fidelia tries to find the language that will successfully communicate her anxiety. She can’t, however, certainly not within a country under a lethal dictatorship. Her narrative has been compromised.
Ariel Dorfman’s Widows also tries to find the words to describe tragedy and the weight of absence. In a small South American town, largely undeveloped, the men have been abducted leaving only their wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Fidelia’s stoic grandmother, Sofia (the fantastic Juliet Bowler), waits for their return by the river. The Captain (Jonathan Brandl) has been sent to turn the town into an industrial and prosperous community, but his black-and-white morality system doesn’t map onto the loss of the women. He certainly doesn’t know what to do with the bodies that begin to wash up from the river.
Presented by Flat Earth Theatre and Open Theatre Project in a joint reading at the Democracy Center, with stage manager Caitlin Mason reading directions, this play is the first of the Resistance Trilogy by Ariel Dorfman. Later this month, Flat Earth will be performing Dorfman’s Reader and OTP will take on Death and the Maiden. Each is about people under the whims of a corrupt government. Well-known for his struggles under Chile’s dictatorship, Dorfman writes about loss of language and the collapse of identity under extreme circumstances.
Widows is rewarding but intense. The two companies do an excellent job in bringing that internal violence to life. Along with Bowler and LaFauci, stand-out readings include James Hayward as Emmanuel, an impoverished young officer, and Libby Schap as Cecilia Sanjines, Emmanuel’s lover who despairs over the loss of her husband. The Captain, Jonathan Brandl, is a bit stilted in some of his delivery, but the actions of his character remain engrossing.
While a compelling a portrait, Widows sticks to thoroughly archetypal renderings of its characters. Juliet Bowler breathes life into flinty Sofia Fuentes, but the women in the play are largely defined by what they’ve lost as opposed to what they are. It may be par for the course in a political parable that identities are flattened, however. The characters are meant to exist as parts of a whole rather than individuals. Dorfman can be didactic, yes, but it’s enormously rewarding to watch as the titular widows stand up to their oppressors, demanding the right to determine their own lives and cherish the loved ones no longer with them. Like Fidelia, they have learned they need to tell their own stories rather than wait for someone else to do it for them.
The reading was a highly successful one and an excellent joint project for the two theater groups. As a way to market their individual productions, it’s certainly a master stroke. I would be interested to see what they do with the rest of Dorfman’s work and hope others who attended the reading feel the same.