Second Stage really knows how to show a girl a good time, the proof being its excellent track record of producing vital work by important women playwrights. Chalk up another win with “Mala Hierba,” a funny and frightening play that Chicago scribe Tanya Saracho (“Looking,” “Girls”) has set in the household of a brutal player in the narcotics trade on the Tex-Mex border. In helmer Jerry Ruiz’s riveting production, the real drama takes place behind the scenes, in the private life of the tyrant’s gorgeous trophy wife and the women who either enable or threaten her precarious existence.
Marta Milans, the Amazonian beauty on ABC’s recently axed “Killer Women,” gives the drug lord’s wife, Liliana, everything a trophy wife must have to survive — and then some. Besides the body of a goddess and the Scheherazade-like skill to contain her husband’s irrational rages, she also possesses the street cunning of a girl who came up from abject poverty and the strength to endure the punishing brutality of the monster she married. (Leather belts figure in his sadistic version of sexual foreplay.)
Liliana’s faithful maid, Yuya (played with humor and heart by Chicago stage vet Sandra Marquez), is her sole companion and guardian, the kind of maternal warrior who would pick up her sword and kill to protect her charge. But not even Yuya can shield Liliana from her stepdaughter, Fabiola, a baby monster in Ana Nogueira’s viciously funny portrayal.
This spoiled brat has come down from Houston, where she is supposedly studying, for her father’s 55th birthday party. And since she’s Daddy’s only daughter and the apple of his eye, this little hellcat has enormous power over Liliana. Nogueira has great fun with the role, snatching her stepmother’s own party dress off her back (costumer Carisa Kelly gets the fashionably slutty look of the clothes just right), taking claim to Liliana’s brand new car, and grabbing every other little toy that catches her eye.
As shrewd as she is beautiful, Liliana does the smart thing — she gives this evil princess whatever she wants and prays that she won’t ruin the elaborate celebration that took six months to plan. And for a while, this tactic seems to work. “You are my favorite of my dad’s wives,” Fabiola bubbles. “You’re almost like a sister to me — but like not.”
Nogueira delivers this laugh-getting line with a chilling layer of ice, leaving no doubt that this wild child can become dangerous. As indeed she does, when she invites Maritza (Roberta Colindrez), Liliana’s onetime lesbian lover, to the big party. Maritza is not only a sexy presence, in Colindrez’s cool and contained perf, she’s also Liliana’s only hope to escape the glamorous but treacherous world that has become her prison.
Aside from the interesting gender hook, Liliana’s dilemma is one that romantic heroines often find themselves in — to retain her wealth and social position as the pampered pet of a cruel and powerful husband, or to escape for a more uncertain life with a lover. Saracho has a firm grasp on the inherent drama of this love-and-hate triangle, and helmer Ruiz (who recently directed “Basilica” for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater) gets some fierce performances from his highly committed cast.
But there’s more to this play than a conventional romantic dilemma, however entertainingly presented. Although the action is confined to Liliana’s boudoir (elegantly tacky, in Raul Abrego’s efficient design scheme), there’s a larger drama going on in the world outside the narco compound. It’s not part of the plot, but it keeps asserting itself in throwaway lines and casual exchanges that resonate throughout the play.
One such reference is made to a brother of Liliana’s who died in the cartel wars that are constantly claiming lives in this hotspot zone between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, on the other side of the border. And when Liliana daydreams about a more stable life as a governor’s wife, Yuya quickly reminds her that “they’re killing governors right now. La mafia is making a video game of beheading them for points.”
Given the gang wars, wholesale executions, and violent kidnappings in this region of the Rio Grande Valley, Liliana has good reason to fear for her life and for the safety of her family who live outside the compound. “Too many of us depend on you,” Yuya reminds her, when she makes plans to run off to Chicago with Maritza. Although Saracho tells Liliana’s story with a lusty sense of humor, she makes it clear that the life of a trophy wife is one of the most perilous jobs on either side of the border.