What did the poet write on Elvira's fan, that she should keep it at her side all her long life? Why was the Indian woman beaten in Arequipa? What made Elvira renounce Joaquin on the eve of their marriage?

Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Young Lady From Tacna" at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts contains many of the modern classical elements of Latin-American literature that have come to the attention of Anglo audiences in the last decade or so--the major breakthrough having been made with Marquez's epic "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which begins with someone's memory of ice.

"The Young Lady From Tacna" has a similar preoccupation with family and its history, with the looping back and forth of time, as though time itself were an author constantly redrafting the same story; and with the absorption of facts and events so intense that the reflective consciousness can no longer distinguish between what has happened and what's being created.

Unfortunately, these intriguing matters have not found an effective staging under Joanne Pottlitzer's direction, nor in her flavorful Spanish translation, which could use a trim. "The Young Lady From Tacna" is set over a 100-year period in and around several towns in Peru, and there are times during the course of the play--which isn't much over two hours--when we feel the weight of every one of them.

The opening scene shows Mama-E, as Elvira is called in her later years, sitting in her rocker, senile and incontinent at the edge of her querulous, put-upon family life. Her grandson Belisario wants to write a love story. "What are you doing in my love story?" he asks her, as though she were inhabiting the chair and his imagination at the same time.

"The Young Lady From Tacna's" motion, in fact, is generated by Belisario's imagination as he gropes beyond this decrepit impenetrable image to the beautiful young woman within. Why did she never marry? She was romantic, imaginative. She read Flaubert. Belisario ferrets out the scandals, the betrayals, the sexual fears and fantasies that drenched her body with anticipatory sweat. Is what we learn the real story of Elvira, or Belisario's plausible conjecture? We're not even sure of the accuracy of her memories (at first we're led to believe that a visit from her fiance's mistress scotched the marriage, but then the woman shows up in another guise later--a universal temptress).

We can never be certain. One is young, one gets old, one dies. We're lucky to get our story told at all. And what's the truth of it when we do? A few biographical details, some psychological patterns, some indisputable events--they're just pegs for a huge sail of self that billows and flaps and changes with the light of the sun and the moon.

At 1 1/2 hours, this could have wrapped us in the happy distress of a dream--and it may be that Pottlitzer wanted to suggest a kind of dream-time. Everything is slow, heavy. A compelling story should always keep a couple of steps ahead of us. This one ponders, and trudges, all at the same deadly pace, long after we've seen the message (the last scene of Act I is particularly schematic--Elvira's poetic reverie juxtaposed against the tedious wrangling of an enervated, middle-class family arguing about what to do with her).

None of the performances is sparkling, and a number are self-conscious. Irene De Bari is not "the water-color image" of ethereal beauty Elvira is described as being, but she's very alive in the eyes and skilled at managing the transitions of age without lapsing into cliches. Henry Darrow's Belisario looks and acts like a Latin-American Hal Holbrook; his focus is too literal and pedestrian for Belisario's fevers of poetic exploration. Angela Moya is a pretty but very up-tight courtesan. Sal Lopez and Richard German do well as the petit-bourgeois brothers, and Louis Cruz Beltran is a convincingly subtle lady-killer as the dashing Joaquin.

The good costumes are by Richard D. Smart. The rest of the design (except the music, which is uncredited) is plain.

Performances Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 and 7:30 p.m., at 421 N. Avenue 19 (225-4044) through June 23.

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