Every family has its secrets, and in an uncertain political climate, precarious situations and relationships that have held on by a thread for years can quickly become threatened. Species Native to California, a new play by Dorothy Fortenberry currently being presented by the IAMA Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, takes a comedic yet poignant look at two families, one white and wealthy, one undocumented refugees, as events on both small and large scales change the way they have gotten used to living.
Directed by Eli Gonda, the play takes place on a sprawling vineyard in northern California that is home to Skip (Tom Amandes), a laid-back to a fault family patriarch who is left in charge of the estate that has been passed down through his wife’s family after she leaves him. His daughter, Zo (Melissa Stephens) shares his free-spirited attitude and has spent almost her entire life on the vineyard, where she is now attempting to rehabilitate the vines that have not produced grapes in years. They share their property with Gloria (Eileen Galindo) and her 18-year-old son, Victor (Tonatiuh Elizarraraz), undocumented immigrants who have been living with Skip and his family since Victor was a baby, ostensibly as part of the family even though it is clear to outsiders that their role is more akin to hired help.
When Skip learns he is in serious financial debt as a result of the vineyard not generating any income for years, he calls his more pragmatic daughter, Mara (Margaux Susi), a preppy girl who is working at a startup in the city and enjoys extravagances such as high-end hair straightening treatments. She brings along her boyfriend and boss, Jeff (Tim Rock), not-so-secretly plotting to marry him and convince him to use his plentiful funds to bail her family out of trouble.
The play is very specifically set in 2016 and tied to the political climate surrounding the election. Act one takes place in the more optimistic days just prior to the California primary, while act two jumps in time several months to the weeks just prior to November 8th. Ultimately, while setting it then definitely adds an underlying sense of dread, particularly whenever Gloria talks about her refugee status, this has no bearing on the story itself. There has already been an influx of plays commenting on the Trump administration, and that element felt a bit forced here in an attempt to make the story feel more topical. The cultural and socioeconomic differences of the two families are enough to make the necessary point about the many types of people who live in California, the unexpected ways their worlds can intersect, and the difference between owning property and relying on others to let you live on it. Gloria speaks both Spanish and English, clinging tightly to her roots, frustrated with Victor’s aspirations of becoming an entrepreneur and his desires to do anything she deems risky to the fragile life they have built for themselves. Bernie (Carlos E. Campos), Skip’s friend and financial advisor, is Latino but often responds to Spanish in English, actively rejecting his own roots and providing an example of the cultural middle ground.
Species Native to California features an impressive, immersive set by David Mauer, with trees, plants, and vines surrounding the entire space, making you feel like you’re truly in the middle of this too-beautiful-to-be-real vineyard these characters have been lucky enough to live on for so many years, even if some of them took it for granted. The story is at its best when delving into the complex emotions of a fractured family with longstanding wounds. Zo and Mara don’t know why their mother left, and this abandonment has affected them both in different yet similar ways, leaving them lost and untethered, whether clinging desperately to the only place they’ve ever called home or bouncing around in the world from job to job, relationship to relationship. Act one ends with an unexpected tragedy that produces the piece’s strongest scenes in act two as everyone struggles to come to terms with certain change.
There is also an interesting mystical element to the story—Gloria often tells the folktale of La Llorona (Murielle Zuker), “The Weeping Woman,” a ghost who lost her children and now brings bad luck and misfortune to others. Here, she quite literally haunts the vineyard, doing everything from sitting back in amusement eating grapes as drama unfolds to directly interacting with the estate’s occupants. Her presence adds a unique, eerie feel to an otherwise grounded story, although I wish more consistent rules were established for the way in which she appears because her function seemed to vary as necessary from scene to scene. Ultimately, Species Native to California is a thoughtful, heartfelt exploration of family, prosperity, community, and how easily all three can change on a dime.
Species Native to California runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through June 11th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. The running time is 2 hours, including one intermission. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at http://www.iamatheatre.com/.