In March 1976, a military junta took control of Argentina, ready to dispose of anyone who opposed them. In the years that followed, it is estimated that as many as 30,000 people disappeared as a result of the “Dirty War.” The “disappeareds” included many young pregnant women who gave birth in captivity before being murdered. Their babies were taken from them and illegally adopted out to families with connections to the military. In subsequent years, the people of Argentina whose children and grandchildren went missing have not given up searching for them. One group, The Abuelas, focuses on finding the living, and recently located their 130th grandchild. Most of these “living disappeared” children grew up with no idea they were victims of kidnapping, or of the horrifying fate met by their birth mothers.
This true story inspired The Abuelas, a play by Stephanie Alison Walker currently in its west coast premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company. Most widely known for producing classic works, this is the company’s first full production of a new show that originated in the Antaeus Playwright’s Lab. Walker was inspired to tell this story by time spent in Buenos Aires with her Argentinian stepmother, and seeks to raise awareness of this ongoing issue—a mission that given the number of people seen Googling the disappeared at intermission, seems to be working.
Directed by Andi Chapman, The Abuelas tells the story of Gabriella (Argentine actress Luisina Quarleri), a highly successful concert cellist living in Chicago. On the surface, her life is fairly ideal. She is the first woman ever to hold first chair in her orchestra, and lives in a stylish, expensive-looking apartment with her architect husband, Marty (Seamus Dever) and their young son. But friction quickly becomes apparent—their marriage is hanging by a thread, struggling to recover from infidelity, and it is difficult to reconnect emotionally when Gabriella’s mother, Soledad (Denise Blasor) is constantly hovering. A planned short visit from Buenos Aires turned into a multi-month stay when the baby’s nanny quit unexpectedly, and Soledad has become a fixture at the home.
It is Soledad’s birthday that becomes the event that will change Gabriella’s life forever. Her mother’s friend César (David DeSantos) brings along an unexpected guest, an elderly woman named Carolina (Irene De Bari). Carolina’s behavior is odd, and she reacts to meeting Gabriella as if she has seen a ghost. It turns out she is convinced she has found her long-lost granddaughter after searching for 37 years. Naturally, Gabriella is extremely rattled, and must choose how to face this troubling allegation that would upend her entire life and identity if true.
The design elements of this production are lovely, beginning with the well-appointed set (Edward E. Haynes, Jr) highlighted by large windows that showcase beautiful projections (Adam R. Macias) of the Chicago skyline and changing weather. Understandably, Quarleri does not actually play the cello, and the sound design (Jeff Gardner) in these moments is a bit distracting as it does little to mask the fact that the music is not being played live. The cast is strong, but Blasor is the standout as the dramatic Soledad, always looking to be the center of attention and have the last word.
The first act, which takes place primarily on the one fateful evening, is tight and moves along at a satisfying pace. But the second meanders, prolonged by an inefficient series of short scenes at the end and a fantasy dream sequence that goes on for too long. The secondary plotline of Gabriella and Marty’s marriage woes never rises above typical melodrama and lacks the specificity of the rest of the story. The story of the children of the disappeared is a fascinating one I have never seen dramatized onstage, and the play shines brightest when it focuses on that rather than getting swept up into trivial interpersonal drama that is of little consequence. Ultimately, it is exciting to see Antaeus using their always top-tier stable of actors and designers to present new works, and soon The Abuelas will run in repertory with Eight Nights by Jennifer Maisel, its second Lab-developed play.
The Abuelas runs at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale through November 25th. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Beginning October 31st, performances run in rotation with Eight Nights. For performance schedule and to purchase tickets, which cost $35, click here.