Stephanie Alison Walker’s “The Abuelas,” now at Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale, is the kind of play that makes staff dramaturgs earn their keep: so much history to contextualize. A standalone companion to Walker’s “The Madres,” which ran last year at Skylight Theatre, “The Abuelas” dramatizes the repercussions of Argentina’s “dirty war” of 1976-83, when the military junta systematically abducted, detained and murdered an estimated 30,000 Argentine citizens.
Among the desaparecidos (disappeared ones) were pregnant women, who gave birth while chained to tables in detention centers, their babies taken and given to strangers. An activist organization known as the Abuelas (the Grandmothers), has been working for decades to track down these now-adult orphans.
The story isn’t common knowledge here, so Antaeus has a placard in the lobby summarizing the history of the Abuelas. The program includes a historical essay by dramaturg Ryan McRee. Even though the play begins in contemporary Chicago, we suspect that all this information will soon become relevant.
Gabriela (Luisina Quarleri), a beautiful cellist with the Chicago Symphony, and her husband, Marty (“Castle” actor Seamus Dever), an architect, live in a high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan (an artsy, spacious apartment set-designed by Edward E. Haynes Jr.). Gabriela’s mother, Soledad (Denise Blasor), is visiting from Buenos Aires.
One wintry night (Adam Macias’ projections and Jeff Gardner’s sound make the world outside the windows look and sound very cold), they are preparing Soledad’s birthday dinner. This scene, fluidly directed by Andi Chapman, delicately conveys the family dynamics: Self-dramatizing Soledad and prickly Gabriela are, at once, resentful of and completely wrapped up in each other. Marty, a little sidelined, makes himself useful by cooking and being a good sport.
Soledad has invited a guest, Cesar (David DeSantos), an affable Argentine man she met at the Catholic church. Unexpectedly, he brings a guest of his own, elderly Carolina (Irene De Bari), who is silent and standoffish — until Gabriela comes into the room. Then, Carolina dissolves into hysterics, marvels at how long she has waited for this moment and threatens to faint.
Those who have resolutely ignored every hint so far may not guess where this is heading. The rest of us may find the play’s leisure in getting there frustrating. Because the revelation feels predetermined, you’d expect less time spent working up to it and more on Gabriela’s reaction — how it changes her rapport with her family and her understanding of the world.
These questions do become the focus of the second act, but in a kind of scattershot way, with subplots picked up and then dropped, and a tone that ricochets between naturalism and overwrought fantasy.
“The Abuelas” is the first Antaeus production developed in-house, in its Playwrights Lab — a departure from the company’s specialty, classics. They’ve done it a lot of credit, with a strong cast, lavish design and sophisticated staging. The script still feels a few drafts away from finding its story, the right balance between fact and fiction, but it totally sticks the landing. Try not to cry.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 25
Info: (818) 506-1983 or www.Antaeus.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (one intermission)
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