The title “My Visits With MGM” both misleads and describes the action exactly. There are no lions, filmmakers or Hollywood here. The MGM of the title refers to “my grandmother Marta,” and indeed, the play’s main character visits her grandmother Marta often. These visits show rich-in-spirit characters whose interactions, while not particularly dramatic, are tender. The play comes across as a long ode to a special person.
What makes the evening feel as long as it does is that playwright Edit Villarreal has built the first act as mostly exposition. The protagonist, the granddaughter, appears passive throughout; she reacts more than she acts. Director Jose Cruz Gonzalez keeps things moving, but the action never reaches a level that captivates.
The play begins with Marta Feliz (Edna Alvarez), who visits the burned-out husk of her grandmother’s house and fondly recalls the woman, Marta Grande (Vetza Trussell), who immigrated from Mexico during the revolution in 1910. Marta Grande brought her sister Florinda (Christine Avila) with her, and they settled in Texas.
Re-enacting the history, Marta Grande meets Juan (Vic Trevino), whom she marries after he returns from the trenches of World War I. Lungs scarred from gas, he becomes a benign U.S. border patrolman. They have six children.
Marta Feliz’s mother, a registered nurse, marries and divorces four men, having a child with each. While her mother works, Marta Feliz gets raised by a grandmother whom the audience gets to know as an outgoing and good-humored woman who can curse. (The play does not explain what happens to Marta Feliz’s three siblings.) Aunt Florinda, meanwhile, dives deeply into fundamental Catholicism and becomes rather wacky.
Marta Feliz’s problem while growing up, lightly touched on, is how to bridge the gap between the American culture she learns in school and the Mexican culture she learns from her grandmother.
In the second act, the story kicks in: Marta Feliz encounters a series of marriages and childbirths like her mother’s and fights Aunt Florinda for ownership of the house after Marta Grande passes away. Aunt Florinda is turning the house into a Catholic shrine and way station for the poor, while a Chicano Catholic priest (Trevino) seeks Marta Feliz’s affection.
Throughout, the younger woman still visits with her grandmother, who pops in from heaven.
The first-rate cast brings humor and warmth to their characters, even if the events move without dramatic pursuit. Vetza Trussell shows Marta Grande as an early feminist, a woman in control who doesn’t let poverty or cultural barriers hamper her actions. Even death doesn’t stop her.
Christine Avila delights. Her Florinda rises from caricature into a highly regarded woman in the Catholic community.
If only Marta Feliz had more of her grandmother’s or aunt’s ambition, the play might have more locomotion. Nonetheless, Edna Alvarez makes her character quite likable, and she seamlessly and effectively moves from childhood toward middle age without relying on costume changes or makeup.
The set design by Estela Scarlata brilliantly and with a painterly vision creates the burned-out house whose front yard becomes the living room of the past. Mark Friedman’s rich sound design and Robert Fromer’s lighting start the play out on a high note with the burning of the house. Costumes by Gabriel Espinoza complement the whole.