Yet neither work sinks into depression, because humor and vitality brighten the gloom. And “Tectonics,” in the end, proves sweet and touching, a mystical love story for the millennium.
Love hardly seems in the air at first. In the “worst storm of the century,” Anibal de la Luna, driving home from his job as an LAX baggage handler, stops to pick up a bedraggled, extremely expectant wanderer, Celestina del Sol. She tells Anibal she’s looking for the handsome man who impregnated then betrayed her. Anibal, feeling pity for Celestina’s plight, invites her to stay overnight in his home.
You don’t need more than Spanish 101 to spot a pattern — del Sol, de la Luna , Celestina. They all mesh with the title, Rivera’s phrase borrowed from geology to describe the enigmatic ways clouds break up and re-form. It’s his central metaphor for unexplainable fates and the magic of fortunate confluences.
Nature comes even more into play as Anibal and Celestina talk. Despite the improbable circumstances and her strange behavior — including stream-of-consciousness chatter about her being 50, pregnant for over two years, and having absolutely no concept of time — he finds himself falling in love. Not so naturally, he also notices that clocks have stopped and radios and TVs don’t work.
More strangeness develops with the abrupt appearance of Anibal’s GI brother, Nelson, who’s been out of touch for six years. A supermacho type who trades rough-housing and raunch with Anibal, Nelson too falls under Celestina’s spell. He dismisses any oddity about her with a shrug and an all-explanatory “Women!” and vows to marry her as soon as he finishes his tour of duty.
Off he goes, and the couple heads for bed — which overhangs the superb set by Riccardo Hernandez, and entails climbing a ladder. The heavenward symbolism is apt, but the appearance of precariousness distracts momentarily from director Tina Landau’s captivating pacing.
It’s the only quibble about Hernandez’s design, a blend of substance and suggestion featuring Anibal’s apartment (with a working stove) thrusting from a huge rectangular backdrop that allows for a simulated rainstorm.
Reality gets a further skew as a maimed Nelson returns after two years in Bosnia, while for Anibal and Celestina, the night has barely passed. Even stranger, in an epilogue 40 years later, the Big One has hit, Los Angeles is in a rebirth, and a radiant Celestina, with her infant — the reborn L.A.? — visits old Anibal in a hospital.
Though he hardly remembers her, she tells him: “I want to love you every age of your life.”
Rivera’s style, an homage to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, enriches his subject — the quirkiness of time, particularly for those in love. And he’s generally adept at blending the earthy with the ethereal. Still, he needs to work on subtlety, as in reducing Celestina’s reiterations of her ignorance about time.
As Anibal, Luis Antonio Ramos is the only actor who didn’t appear in the “Tectonics” premiere in the spring Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., and his newness showed in some line muffs. Those notwithstanding, he provides a solid Everyman base, decent, well-meaning and a bit befuddled by the mysteries swirling around him.
With the most challenging role, Camilia Sanes manages to make Celestina credible. Whether lauding the physical, as in sex, or expounding on the metaphysical, as with time, Celestina gets exuberant, and Sanes deftly keeps her out of dementia. As Nelson, Javi Mulero contributes the right studly swagger.
Brandin Baron’s working-class costumes, Anne Militello’s varied and moody lighting, and Mark Bennett’s dramatic sound match the high quality of Hernandez’s set.
For good measure, its framing rectangle has a Spanish quote from poet Pablo Neruda, which capsulizes this play’s lovely theme and translates as: “Oh let me remember you as you were then, even before you existed.”