Luis Valdez, founder of the populist theater troupe El Teatro Capesino, hasn't written a new play in some 15 years. Since that time, he has found success in Hollywood, writing and directing the hit movie "La Bamba" among other works. With "The Mummified Deer," receiving its world premiere at the San Diego Rep, Valdez returns to his roots in more ways than one. He comes back to the theater with a fictionalized investigation of his own family ancestry, and in the process examines the history of the Yaqui Indians and their oppressed plight in Mexico. The play isn't fully realized structurally, but the farther Valdez digs into the buried secrets of the past, the more affecting the work becomes.

Luis Valdez, founder of the populist theater troupe El Teatro Capesino, hasn’t written a new play in some 15 years. Since that time, he has found success in Hollywood, writing and directing the hit movie “La Bamba” among other works. With “The Mummified Deer,” receiving its world premiere at the San Diego Rep, Valdez returns to his roots in more ways than one. He comes back to the theater with a fictionalized investigation of his own family ancestry, and in the process examines the history of the Yaqui Indians and their oppressed plight in Mexico. The play isn’t fully realized structurally, but the farther Valdez digs into the buried secrets of the past, the more affecting the work becomes.

The play was inspired by a newspaper article about an elderly woman who was discovered to have a mummified fetus in her uterus. Valdez transforms this germ of an idea into the catalyst for an unburdening of family secrets.

In 1969, the vantage point from which the story is told, Mama Chu (Alma Martinez) has been hospitalized at the age of 84 with an inexplicable affliction, which causes her estranged granddaughter, anthropology grad student Armida (Maria Candelaria), to rush to her side.

When the doctor tells the family that there’s a 60-year-old fetus in Mama Chu’s womb, Armida starts asking some probing questions of her Uncle Profe (Ruben Garfias) and Aunt Oralia (Catalina Maynard), whom she realizes couldn’t be Mama Chu’s biological children after all.

Gradually, in a series of monologues by various relatives, Valdez works his way backward, revealing Mama Chu’s horrific ordeals before, and after, she came to America from Sonora, Mexico, shedding some rather shocking light on things Armida had always taken for granted, like her parentage.

Meanwhile, the unconscious Mama Chu, who spends most of her time in a hospital bed center stage, is visited by the visions of her past, and the mummified fetus is embodied metaphorically by a dancing deer, portrayed with evocative grace by the playwright’s son, Lakin Valdez. The deer comes to represent the Yaqui past that Mama Chu has kept carefully hidden away, and which she protects from constant hallucinatory threats.

The work finally does come together in a moving finale, but it has to start over a few times to get there. Valdez is one of those rare writers who can give a political history lesson and infuse it with such unpretentious conviction that it works as art.

The unadorned moments of “The Mummified Deer,” when the play looks past the metaphor at the bared reality and straightforwardly reflects upon Yaqui history, are the most potent parts, but the audience has to wait most of the evening to get there.

The first act is pretty much all set-up for the second, where the family recollections begin in earnest. Even then, Valdez tries but never quite succeeds at moving forward and backward simultaneously. The present-day story (that is to say the one set in the late ’60s) requires more heft — the effect on Armida of each new discovery is vague and uninteresting, and the medical decision confronting the family never takes on the urgency of a dramatic dilemma.

Above all, until the very end the poetical deer feels too much like an accessory rather than an integral part of the play’s deepest concerns. If Valdez were more comfortable with magical realism — rather than more Brechtian agit-prop — he’d actually have the deer interacting with more of the characters, at the very least with Armida, who’s structurally the centerpiece here and needs a more direct confrontation with the past she’s discovering.

What ultimately most limits “The Mummified Deer” to a decent but not really memorable theatrical experience is that the imagery doesn’t jump out at you, even though it’s clearly supposed to.

The designs have something to do with the problem: Giulio Cesare Perrone’s set, a concave, deerskin-colored stage, is expressive but unattractive.

Melanie Watnick’s costumes capture some characters, the mysterious circus performer Cosme Bravo, for example, but not others, like Mama Chu’s favorite lover, Lucas Flores.

There are moments when it seems Chris Rynne’s lighting and Daniel Valdez’s music will take this work to the next imaginative realm, but that never quite happens.

The Mummified Deer

Lyceum Space Theatre, San Diego; 270 seats; $38 top

Production

A San Diego Repertory Theatre world premiere presentation of a two-act play written and directed by Luis Valdez.

Creative

Set, Giulio Cesare Perrone; costumes, Melanie Watnick; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound, Todd Reischman; composer, Daniel Valdez; stage manager, Dana Schneider. Opened Oct. 27, 2000; reviewed Oct. 28; closes Nov. 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Nurse - Mary Burt Armida - Maria Candelaria Lucas Flores - Raul Cardona Tilly - Alysa Flores Profe - Ruben Garfias Mama Chu - Alma Martinez Oralia - Catalina Maynard Doctor/Don Guero - James Newcomb Cosme Bravo - Marcos Rodriguez Yaqui - Lakin Valdez Augustine - Vivis
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