It sometimes seems that any play about enormous social transition must begin as an adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” In the case of “El Nogalar,” a new play by impressive up-and-coming writer Tanya Saracho set in contemporary northern Mexico, the source material provides an intriguing starting point for her variations on Chekhov’s characters. But while Saracho and director Cecilie Keenan deliver deeply expressive moments and a wonderfully easygoing lyricism, the work currently occupies a very recognizable but limiting middle ground, too tied to its source to explore its own fascinating milieu.
“Ruined,” also commissioned and produced by the Goodman, serves as the best recent example of a project that began as a planned adaption (of Brecht’s “Mother Courage”) but morphed into an original work as playwright Lynn Nottage became fully invested in its exploration of the civil war-ridden Congo. There seems to be that same potential here, if Saracho would unleash herself from the anxiety of Chekhov’s influence.
The inspiration itself makes sense. Parts of Mexico have undergone a rapid and tectonic change. Peaceful areas have become violent tyrannies run by drug cartels, and even the wealthy are not immune to the growing violence, perhaps in part due to years of inaction and a feeling of aristocratic impenetrability.
And Saracho creates fully realized characters who are fine contemporary corollaries for Chekhov’s primary personages. The emotionally manipulative and impractical prodigal owner of an estate (played quite stunningly by Charin Alvarez); her two believably opposite daughters — caretaker Valeria (Sandra Delgado) and spoiled Anita (Christina Nieves), who has spent so much time in America she is insecure about her Spanish — and the descendant of manual laborers (Carlo Lorenzo Garcia) who has a handle on the valuable forward-looking technologies craved even by the drug lords.
But in a world now run by fear, there is way too little palpable sense of it onstage, and key elements of the story, such as the circumstances and rationale of the sale of the titular pecan orchard, become muddy.
By the final scene, Saracho has pulled herself free and finds herself focused on the rising figures, including an effectively loose variation of Chekhov’s upwardly-striving maid Dunyasha (the exceptional Yunuen Pardo). But the ending is abrupt and unsatisfying, and it feels as if Saracho has only started to plumb the contradictions, compromises and betrayals she has uncovered.
There’s so much depth and such a compelling setting (and set as well – designed so that a miniature house tells us where scenes are occurring) that it all deserves more exploration. Maybe Saracho should start thinking of this as a sequel rather than an adaptation.