Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Jan. 27
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Turning decades of atrocities against women into a 90-minute play is no easy task, but that’s just what Isaac Gomez attempts in “La Ruta,” which is enjoying a potent world premiere in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre.
As the 27-year-old playwright explains in an essay in the program, he was determined to give voice to “Las Desaparecidas” (the missing girls), also called “La Muertas de Juarez” (the dead women of Juarez), the hundreds, probably thousands, of mostly young women who have disappeared in Cuidad Juarez, the Mexican town across the border from El Paso, Texas, where he grew up.
Many of them worked for long hours and low wages in maquiladoras, the U.S. and other foreign-owned factories that sprang up after the passage of NAFTA in 1994. They often had to take buses from poor rural communities. Getting to the bus route—La Ruta—left them open to attack and kidnapping, especially at night. Their bodies—raped, tortured, mutilated, murdered—frequently turned up in the desert or dumpsters.
Blame for this femicide has been placed on the drug cartels, gang activity, sex traffickers, opportunistic rapists, the factory owners, and a machismo society, but rarely has anyone actually been held accountable, thanks to inept or corrupt authorities and an indifferent or silent press. Though the subject has been treated in music, film, and print, including Roberto Bolaño’s novel, “2666,” which was adapted for Goodman Theatre, Gomez’s work offers a unique perspective.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews, he creates a kind of microcosm that focuses on three actual cases, though he’s quick to point out that it is not a docudrama. While the women are real people, the interactions among them in the all-female Latinx cast of eight are not.
Furthermore, the action isn’t chronological. Set between 1998 and 2000, it jumps back and forth between specific amounts of time before and after the disappearance of 16-year-old Brenda (Cher Alvarez), and the dates are projected on the walls of Regina Garcia’s set, along with scenes like the maquiladora where she works and a fireworks-filled night sky. (Projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson).
Mixing up the time frame can be confusing and distancing, but Gomez uses the technique to build tension and craft a mystery. We first see Brenda’s mother, Yolanda (Sandra Delgado), waiting at the bus stop for her daughter to come home. With her is her good friend, Marisela (Charin Alvarez), whose daughter, Rubí, disappeared some time ago. When Brenda, who is working the night shift at a jeans factory despite her mother’s qualms, isn’t on the last bus of the night, Yoli gets upset, but Marisela convinces her to calm down and go to the police.
From there, we leap back to Brenda’s first night at work, where coworker Ivonne (Karen Rodriguez) takes the enthusiastic but inexperienced girl under her wing. We later learn that Yoli has asked her to do so, but that raises one of the several issues that undermine this production.
As directed by Sandra Marquez and played by Rodriguez, Ivonne is frighteningly mercurial, volatile, and erratic. She’s such an obvious bad influence that it’s impossible to believe that any mother would entrust her daughter to her, much less a careful one like Yoli.
It also becomes clear pretty quickly that Ivonne has something to do with Brenda’s disappearance, but the mystery Gomez parcels out in small doses—an artificial device—is exactly what and why. The answer involves Ivonne’s own gut-wrenching involvement with evil men, but that raises the question of why they need her to facilitate a kidnapping. Or maybe they’re just being sadistic.
The on-again off-again nature of Yoli and Marisela’s friendship also is problematic. After Marisela learns that Rubí has been murdered by her boyfriend and stuffed in a plastic bag, she becomes increasingly activist. She asks Yoli to join her, but she’s in denial and still believes Brenda will return. This causes a rift between the women that doesn’t play out in a way that makes complete sense.
In general, Gomez seems more concerned with what happened than why. The play would benefit from a little less repetitious talk, even if some of it adds a dash of humor, and a deeper analysis of the political, social, and cultural forces at work.
Marquez’s staging is quite effective, and the cluster of pink crosses downstage on Garcia’s set is a powerful reminder of what’s at stake. The ensemble—which also includes Mari Marroquin. Alice da Cunha, Isabella Gerasole, and Laura Crotte—is first rate. Frankly, “La Ruta” is worth seeing just for the songs beautifully led by Crotte, who accompanies herself on guitar and reminds me of great Mexican singers like Mercedes Sosa.