La Virgen de Guadalupe — an apparition of the Virgin Mary — is an icon of the Catholic faith, the patron saint of Mexico and a symbol of Mexican independence venerated throughout the Americas, although not principally for her comic timing.
Or at least not yet. In Evelina Fernández’s enchanting new play, “The Mother of Henry,” now at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, La Virgen gets some of the biggest laughs.
As played by Esperanza America in this Latino Theater Company world premiere, La Virgen strongly resembles the best-known image of her, the one miraculously imprinted on a cloak in 1531 and displayed ever since at her basilica in Mexico City. Enclosed in a fringe of sunbeams, dressed in a pinkish robe and cerulean mantle, La Virgen stands with her head sympathetically tilted, her hands clasped and an angel at her feet.
But here the angel (Robert J. Revell) plays an electric guitar, while La Virgen belts out 1960s folk-rock anthems like “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “For What It’s Worth” in a strong, bluesy alto.
As in the Latin American tradition of magical realism — one of the genres Fernández and director José Luis Valenzuela mingle here — supernatural intervention doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. For although La Virgen responds personally to a worried mother’s prayers, and even helps her fold laundry, she can’t change destiny. “Do you think things would be such a mess if I could?” she asks dryly.
All La Virgen can do is listen and comfort — the plight of every mother. “So many times I think, ‘Oh, no, please don’t do that,’ ” she admits, of watching humanity struggle from above.
The recipient of these Marian visitations, a not-especially-religious woman named Concepcion Castro (Cheryl Umaña), can relate. It’s 1968 in Boyle Heights, and Connie, as her Anglo friends call her, is newly divorced, caring for her ill-tempered, devout mother (also Esperanza America, swathed in blankets and hilariously screaming about rosary beads in Spanish), and starting a new office job at Sears. Her work is dull but easy, fortunately, because Connie has enough on her mind. Her son, Henry, is in Vietnam.
As Connie gets to know her coworkers, their attitudes toward the war begin to color and complicate her own. Because these characters live in the 1960s, well before the era of political correctness, they have none of our qualms about cultural stereotypes; they blithely use them to explain their own and everyone else’s behavior. Their banter captures both the relative simplicity of this worldview and its limitations.
Loretta (Ella Saldana North) is an outspoken Italian who says things like, “There’s something about Latin men. I can’t explain it; I just know I like it.” Olga (Mary-Beth Manning), in keeping with the policies of her native Canada, prefers not to take sides. Their manager, Manny (Xavi Moreno), is a flirty musician on the make; and their supervisor, Herb (Gary Patent), is a kindhearted Jewish bachelor who opposes the war and sympathizes, just as Loretta suspects he does, with “the coloreds.”
As the five of them navigate a rapidly changing America — gorgeously conveyed by Yee Eun Nam’s projections, which combine lush religious iconography with footage of the calamities (RFK’s assassination) and triumphs (the moon landing) of the late 1960s — they change one another in unexpected ways.
The story, if summarized, might sound more bitter than sweet, but the strength of the performances, the warmth and humor of the developing relationships, the excellence of the design elements and Valenzuela’s spirited direction cast an irresistible spell. What it means to be American seems likely to keep changing, just as radically now as it did, but maybe we can get through it if we stick together.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘The Mother of Henry’
Where: Latino Theater Company production at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through April 20
Info: (866) 811-4111 or TheLATC.org
Running time: 2 hours
Support our coverage of local artists and the local arts scene by becoming a digital subscriber.