In reality, Octavio Solis mines a new vein

THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL: Octavio Solis’ work is about a Texas family whose teenage daughter has been disabled.
THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL: Octavio Solis’ work is about a Texas family whose teenage daughter has been disabled.
(Christine Cotter, Los Angeles Times)

Playwright Octavio Solis has become an overnight sensation, and it took only 25 years. Long respected in theater and Latino arts circles, the writer is having breakthrough success with his play “Lydia.”

Set in El Paso in the 1970s, “Lydia” portrays the saga of the Flores family, whose teenage daughter, Ceci, has been disabled in a horrific accident. Into this household of troubled souls and buried secrets enters an undocumented caretaker who shares a mysterious connection with Ceci.

With recent productions at Denver Center Theatre Company, Yale Repertory Theatre and Marin Theatre Company, the drama opens Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Juliette Carrillo. “Lydia” has also been submitted for consideration for the Pulitzer Prize and is a finalist for the 2009 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.

“Lydia” is a breakthrough and a departure for Solis, known for poetic, lyrical language in plays typically not tied to any one setting. The heightened language is still present in “Lydia” but so too is realism.

“It’s my first real true family play inside a house,” the writer says during a recent visit from his Bay Area home. “This is one where everything is happening inside four walls and within a compressed period of time, often real time. I’ve written the kind of play that I said I would never write.

“This is probably my most personal work,” adds the soft-spoken playwright. “I felt compelled to write about a family in the realistic language that I grew up with.”

“Octavio Solis strikes a beautiful balance in writing from his head and his heart,” says Bill Rauch, Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director, who has commissioned Solis to write an adaptation of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” “His work is smart and passionate.”

That combination of the emotional and the intellectual, the intimate and the dramatic, is what some feel gives “Lydia” its power. “It’s a domestic drama, but the language and the theatrical idiom are anything but domestic -- the way the combination of Spanish and English in the play is both comforting and jarring; the shifts in tone and mode are exhilarating, and the mysteries of the story stay with you long after you’ve read or seen it,” says James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre. “It’s one of the most important plays of this decade.”

The writing bug

Considering the stylistic divide between Solis’ earlier works and the giants of American realism, it’s easy to understand why the playwright might be puzzled by some of the response to “Lydia.” And yet, writing intimately about a family’s domestic life as well as the darker side of the American dream, Solis does share a thematic kinship with great U.S. dramatists of generations past.

Opining about the play’s Colorado premiere, Denver Post theater critic John Moore described “Lydia” as “very much the Latino cousin of ‘Death of a Salesman.’ ” And actor David DeSantos, who has performed in Solis’ “La Posada Mágica” at South Coast Repertory, seconds the analogy.

“I can only compare Octavio Solis to a modern-day Arthur Miller,” says DeSantos, currently acting at OSF. “His unflinching take on the human condition, as Miller embraced, is one of Octavio’s strongest assets.” In “Lydia,” says DeSantos, Solis “found a story so dark and tragic. It is desperate and painful but layered with so much love.”

From an actor’s point of view, another similarity is the psychological richness. “Octavio gives actors a road map to a truth that is terrifying and exhilarating in the same breath,” DeSantos says. “In the same way that you open up Odets, Miller or Williams and find a treasure chest of layered honesty, when you open an Octavio Solis play, we actors have a raw, visceral experience.”

Yet even among those who have worked with Solis for years, there is disagreement over whether “Lydia” is a new type of play for the writer. To Carrillo, who also directed the Denver and Yale outings of the play, “Lydia” is less of a departure than a continuation.

“It certainly brings in many of the themes he’s been working with -- broken relationships, violence, secrets, passionate love, death,” says Carrillo, who first worked with Solis in the late ‘90s, when she was running SCR’s Hispanic Playwrights Project. “But what is profoundly special about this play is how close to the bone he is cutting. It comes from a very deep, personal well.”

That personal well is, in many respects, where “Lydia” is set; Solis grew up less than a mile from the Rio Grande, near El Paso. “So the border has always been a presence in my life and my psyche,” he explains. “It looms large in most of my works that I set in Texas.

“There will always be that dichotomy between the first world and the Third World, right there in our backyard. For it to be poignantly expressed as a body of water, a river, where I lived, just makes it more mysterious to me.”

Solis, 50, was born in El Paso to Mexican-born parents. He attended college in San Antonio and received an MFA in acting at the Dallas Theatre Centre, when Trinity University had its graduate program off site there. Fresh out of school, he was cast in a production of Eric Overmyer’s “Native Speech” in Dallas. It proved a turning point. “Instead of thinking I wanted to act in plays like this,” Solis says, “I started to think I wanted to write plays like this.”

Solis produced some experimental writing at a bar where he was then bartending -- when he wasn’t teaching high school. That situation lasted until the late 1980s: “My wife made me quit those jobs and said, ‘Look, we’ll live on my income.’ She’s an attorney.”

In 1988-89, Solis was accepted into a workshop with playwright Maria Irene Fornes as well as South Coast Repertory’s Hispanic Playwrights Project, then run by playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez.

Solis thus became part of a budding movement that would change American regional theater. The late 1980s saw the blossoming of multiculturalism: a proliferation of culturally and ethnically specific workshops, playwriting labs and other development initiatives, supported by government and private sources.

“I’m lucky in the sense that I was a product of that,” Solis says. “I think the artistic directors who embraced it all believed in it, and they had tremendous funding for it. But when the money dried up, it became very hard for the theaters to continue.”

A planned trilogy

Sustained by personal and institutional sources, Solis has finally made it to the A-list of regional theater. His current commissions include Denver Center Theatre, SCR, Yale Rep, OSF and California Shakespeare Festival.

“Don Quixote” will mark Solis’ third play at OSF and the first since Rauch was appointed artistic director in 2006. “As a language-based theater, we embrace writers who use language in extraordinary, fresh and beautiful ways,” says Rauch, formerly of L.A.'s Cornerstone Theater.

Yale Rep will get the sequel to “Lydia,” Part 2 of a projected trilogy, currently titled “Yolanda.” The play takes up the story of Alvaro, one of the minor characters in “Lydia,” 30 years later. Says Dean Bundy: “He’s a good writer for the Rep because he has a distinctive voice and an adventurous aesthetic.” And the third play of the trilogy might go to Denver.

Yet Solis is not immune to the recession. His “La Posada Mágica,” which has been staged as a holiday season event at SCR for the past 15 years, has been canceled for the first time.

Still, Solis’ star is rising fast. “In these hard times, I have to admit I’m doing well,” he says. “I’ve always had a backup of five commissions. And most theaters have said, ‘Write what you want to write,’ which gives me the artistic freedom to explore. I have to count my blessings.”