In Octavio Solis’ “Lydia” at the Mark Taper Forum, the ancient Greek House of Atreus has nothing on the El Paso, Texas, House of Flores. That family’s plate is heaped high with the need to care for a teenage child in a vegetative state, not to mention parental abuse, spousal neglect, immigration struggles, crime, religion, puberty, homosexuality and incest. But despite the play’s bold theatricality and risk-taking, its excess of incident and self-importance yields diminishing returns.
The blissful vision of matriarch Rosa (Catalina Maynard) of “a close, caring Mexican familia trying to make it in this blessed country” is belied by the simmering tension between the naturalized, white-collar wife and her undocumented blue-collar husband Claudio (Daniel Zacapa). Gurgling and convulsing in the corner is a reminder of God and the couple’s failures: their jewel Ceci (Onahoua Rodriguez), victim of a mysterious car crash two years earlier on the eve of her quinceanera.
The younger generation has its own damage. Sensitive Misha (Carlo Alban) composes romantic verse inspired by raging hormones, while older brother Rene (Tony Sancho) drinks and joyrides his way into nightly violence. Back from Vietnam, cousin Alvaro (Max Arciniega) accepts a job with, of all things, the Border Patrol. All carry their psychological burdens on their sleeves, leaving the thesps struggling to find nuance in these stock roles.
Family secrets don’t remain so for long; in Solis’ biggest gamble, Ceci periodically rises from her mattress to reveal everything to us in expansive, Lorca-like poetic outbursts. These flights of fancy (and at times, frank carnality) would be easier to accept if they didn’t state the obvious, and if Rodriguez varied her naggingly singsong delivery. No less wearily dependable are Christopher Akerlind’s light cues to signal each aria’s commencement.
However, America-besotted new maid Lydia (Stephanie Beatriz), a recent Jalisco emigre tending to the family wounds, is a breath of fresh air. The character is too clearly designed to act as everyone’s individual wish fulfillment, but Beatriz brings optimism to the dour context, with line readings refreshingly free of the portent infused in other characters’ dialogue.
Alas, even level-headed Lydia succumbs to the prevailing corruption through sexual indiscretion and unaccountable verbal candor. While 11th-hour air-clearing is generally welcomed by audience and characters alike, hers reveals nothing we haven’t already inferred, and it’s hard to imagine the family worse off had this particular genie stayed inside the bottle.
But then bottling up, as a dramatic strategy, is never much in evidence in “Lydia.” If most plays try to be pressure-cookers, building up until the last possible moment, this one is a well-shaken six-pack whose pull tabs (significant props here) keep getting yanked open. Juliette Carrillo directs scene after scene to begin quietly and end in violence, from a slap to a tussle or worse.
Many of the clashes are chillingly staged, and the intent to raise the circumstances to classic-tragedy levels is admirable. But all too soon, the relentless procession of misery takes its toll on logic and believability.
Though Christopher Acebo’s 1970s living room set is lovingly detailed, its verisimilitude is at odds with the metatheatrical elements. The late Chris Webb’s haunting melodies, supplemented and arranged by David Molina, set an appropriately otherworldly mood.