El Nogalar successfully transports Chekhov’s classic

El Nogalar does not encapsulate the story of modern Mexico so much as it paints an empathetic portrait of characters learning to survive in times of upheaval and violence.

By Ben Sigrist

The United States knows Mexico like a distant cousin knows about the “problem” child in another branch of the family. American newspapers and newscasts paint a chaotic picture of modern-day vice and social ills including (but not limited to) drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and extreme poverty. Unlike these limited glimpses across the border, the Goodman’s El Nogalar does not encapsulate the story of modern Mexico so much as it paints an empathetic portrait of characters learning to survive in times of upheaval and violence. Though the violence on stage never comes close to bloody or gruesome, El Nogalar portrays a different kind of violence–no less frightening–as dreams, illusions, and families are wrecked as easily as drugs and bullets destroy bodies.

Cleverly adapted from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Tanya Saracho’s script veers between closely following Chekhov and taking its own artistic liberties. Saracho has done much more than merely “update” the text for contemporary audiences, unequivocally succeeding in making the story her own. The play opens as Maite (Charín Alvarez), the matriarchal owner of the nogalar (pecan orchard), is about to return to her home in Nuevo León from an extended trip to the United States. Her daughter Valería (Sandra Delgado) fussily worries over the preparations while the housekeeper Dunia (Yunuen Pardo), shouldering much of the work, makes lighthearted fun of the high-strung household.

Maite makes sure that her entrance is a grand affair. Although she spent many luxurious years in the United States and her motives for returning home are murky at best, she overflows with the sort of nostalgia that lends itself to long, passionate speeches and sudden recollections of decades-old memories. Alvarez gives a disciplined performance of this contradictory character caught between the realities of her old age and the passionate, often unsettling, whims more characteristic of a capricious teenager. Nevertheless, Alvarez marvelously exudes bravado, suggesting that Maite’s golden years are rich indeed.

Only that isn’t exactly the case. Maite’s younger daughter Anita (Christina Nieves), something of a ditzy valley girl that Spanish speakers would call a fresa, confesses to Valería that their freewheeling mother might be too unstable to face the fact that the family is quickly running out of money. Having lived in the United States for much of her life, Anita’s youthful naïveté is exaggerated by her unexpected return to Mexico where she occupies an uncomfortable place between native and foreigner. Her Spanish is shaky and she struggles under the burden of her mother’s overbearing affections for the orchard, which Anita herself cannot feel. Anita can be foolish to the point of cruelty, but she is also painfully conflicted and helpless, towed along by the collective scheming of everyone around her.

Such plans include an appeal for financial assistance to López (Carlos Lorenzo Garcia), who worked in the nogalar as a child but now has accumulated his own vast wealth. A careful businessman, he feels obligated to assist the family, mostly because he is in love with Valería, but also because Mexico has changed radically since Maite left. With the town completely dominated by criminal organizations, the question of López’s continued success and safety is better left unanswered. Still, he seeks to present himself as the family’s savior during the unstable times. The barren, emaciated trees of the orchard both signal a tragic loss and warn of the future catastrophe that López and Valería struggle to make Maite understand. Indebted to the drug lords, she stands to lose a lot more than her home, and the looming threat of violence thus becomes a constant reminder that the nogalar is not wholly isolated from the rest of Mexico.

While El Nogalar succeeds on its own, the ending falls short when compared to Chekhov’s original play. Chekhov’s humble mark of irrevocable doom, the steady thud of axes, has no direct parallel in El Nogalar. Although the sense of impending disaster is indeed powerful in Saracho’s script, there can be no suitable replacement for hearing Chekhov’s slow, inevitable march of the coming apocalypse in each axe swing.

The production’s most fascinating conceit, a man-sized mobile dollhouse present on the stage at all times, is the appropriate metaphorical and physical locus for the characters. This massive prop doesn’t always make sense in context, like when it serves as some sort of machinery for López to repair, but its constant presence brilliantly symbolizes the deeply felt motivations that come into terrible conflict. The nogalar and its massive house are a loathsome burden, a fond memory, a status symbol, a kind of crossroads, and more. Each character fills it up with his own dolls and furniture, her own ambitions and desires. But, even as a symbol, the house can only hold so much, and its breaking point cannot pass without heartbreak and tragedy.