There are two particularly haunting images in "Properties of Silence," a surreal visual poem by About Productions now at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse: sand pouring from a shower head and a refrigerator filled with nothing but clear plastic water bottles.
Varieties of thirst — physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual — run through this experimental play by Theresa Chavez, Rose Portillo and Alan Pulner, first performed in 1999.
Two women, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (co-author Portillo), a 17th century nun, and Barbara (Elizabeth Rainey), a modern-day real estate agent, meet in a fever dream to discuss, elliptically, the ways the world has failed to slake their desires.
At first meeting, these two women scarcely seem like the kind of soul mates prone to time-traveling communion. Sor Juana is a historical figure and, these days, a feminist icon: a self-taught polymath born in Mexico who "burned with a desire for knowledge," which set her at odds with the repressive hegemony of her era.
Barbara, in contrast, is a fictional real estate agent in Phoenix whose buzzing cellphone and compulsive list-making can't entirely distract her from the emptiness at the heart of her life.
Kevin Sifuentes plays both Barbara's husband, Tom, a swimming-pool salesman, and Sor Juana's hostile Jesuit confessor, Antonio de Miranda--two very different men. Miranda is a straight-up villain, who urges Juana to relinquish her books and her writing to become "an obedient woman."
Tom may be a bit obtuse, but otherwise his greatest crimes are that he builds swimming pools ("You dig and dig to fill a man-made hole with water," Barbara describes this work, ominously) and encourages his wife to get into commercial real estate.
There are subtle forms of subjugation at work, this double-casting suggests, even in a seemingly equitable double-income family.
To escape the stresses of real estate and her marriage to Tom, Barbara switches on the TV and watches a bit of a film about Sor Juana's life (designed for the production by Janice Tanaka). Later, feeling feverish, she finds Sor Juana in the room with her.
The impulse to resuscitate a long-dead writer whose words speak to us across time runs deep in the human soul. But what would you say to such a visitor? Sor Juana is amazed by the cold bottled water Barbara can offer her from her refrigerator.
Their rest of their conversation touches lightly on feminist issues: the limited options available to women, the quandary of how to express oneself. These serious moments are enlivened by a playful water fight and even a "you go, girl" moment, when Barbara pulls off Sor Juana's wimple and compliments her hair. Co-author Chavez directs both women with tender sympathy.
But whenever things get too lighthearted, the conversation fills up again with statements such as "You can never step in the same river twice" and "The universe is in constant flux."
The play's dense, fertile symbolism, initially so promising, begins to feel hollow. Like so many dreams, it promises to teach us something but dissolves into a series of compelling but ultimately inconclusive images.