How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

A commendable priority of Maryland's Round House Theater under a.d. Blake Robison is to bring popular books to the stage.

A commendable priority of Maryland’s Round House Theater under a.d. Blake Robison is to bring popular books to the stage. Latest project is chick-lit charmer “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” which D.C. playwright Karen Zacarias has turned into a mostly agreeable exercise that captures the intellectual scope and some of the drama of the Julia Alvarez novel.

The 1991 fictional work lured readers with its succinct and heartfelt tales of four spunky sisters from the Dominican Republic, suddenly uprooted when their family moves to New York City. Alvarez’s witty and perceptive book marches backward from 1990 to 1959 in nicely self-contained chapters that trace the Americanized women to their roots while revealing cultural, religious and family influences on their lives.

Translating this universal American immigrant story to the stage reps a daunting assignment for playwright Zacarias, New York’s Lark Play Development Center and director Robison, who had to factor varying locales and distinct age differences into the mix. Zacarias turned a dozen chapters into scenes averaging less than 10 minutes, a challenge that clearly favors the light and quirky over the dramatic, requires lengthier setups and subverts obvious efforts to remain faithful to the text.

For example, a moving chapter about how daughter Yolanda (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) stoically retained her virginity despite the persistent entreaties of a horny college boy is played entirely for laughs. Also, an insightful vignette called “The Kiss,” in which the male-dominated culture is explored through a father-daughter rift involving Sofia (Veronica del Cerro), is too hurriedly presented for proper impact.

Fortunately, the play’s many strengths include an abundance of charm and perception that is certain to resonate with U.S. auds of any origin. Acting on a bare stage with the colors of the Caribbean as a backdrop, embellished with period music from Latin rhythms to Joni Mitchell and the Beatles, the four talented actresses dive headfirst into meaty roles as responsible adults, impetuous adolescents and everything in between.

Fernandez-Coffey, del Cerro, Maggie Bofill and Sheila Tapia are onstage throughout in various configurations, often changing costumes together behind festively colored suitcases filled with props and dresses. Choreographed dance steps are even inserted into some lighter moments thanks to D.C.’s ubiquitous Karma Camp, a touch that cleverly reinforces the close-knit Latin family culture that permeates both book and play.

Emilio Delgado portrays the stern and earnest patriarch, a physician on the run from island politics, while Marian Licha is the endearing mother equally adept at disciplining her girls and fracturing American idioms. Licha’s convincing grasp of the immigrant experience is captured in one sublime scene in which her chest swells with pride when she’s mistakenly called an American “citizen” — a poignant moment that typifies the production’s attention to detail and Robison’s astute direction.

Versatile actor and quick-change artist Bryant Mason plays every other role, often with mind-boggling agility. A highlight is his brief part as Sofia’s intolerant island boyfriend, who gets his comeuppance in the enjoyable scene “Fifi’s Story.”

“Garcia Girls” is Round House’s first commission under Robison and a promising one for the LORT theater. The play is likely to enjoy a healthy life entertaining audiences of every stripe, but particularly those of Latin American descent, who have become U.S. theater’s most coveted new demographic.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Round House Theater, Bethesda, Md.; 400 seats; $60 top

  • Production: A Round House Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Karen Zacarias, based on the novel by Julia Alvarez. Directed by Blake Robison.
  • Crew: Set, Milagros Ponce de Leon; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; lighting, Beverly Emmons; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; choreography, Karma Camp. Opened, reviewed Sept. 22, 2008. Runs through Oct. 12. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • Cast: Yolanda - Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey Carla - Maggie Bofill Sandra - Sheila Tapia Sofia - Veronica del Cerro Papi - Emilio Delgado Mami - Marian Licha <b>With:</b> Bryant Mason.