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In ‘The Abuelas,’ opening at Antaeus, Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ reverberates at home

The Abuelas Antaeus Theatre
Gabriela (Luisina Quarleri) has learned a secret about her birth that calls her whole identity into question. Soledad (Denise Blasor), the woman who raised her, has no idea that Gabriela has found out what she’s spent 37 years hiding.
(Courtesy of Jenny Graham)

A pregnant woman, blindfolded and shackled, is giving birth on a table to a girl that will be snatched from her mother just days after she is born.

In “The Abuelas,” a play kicking off its West Coast premiere this weekend at the Antaeus Theatre, Gabriela (portrayed by Luisina Quarleri) watches the harrowing vision of her own birth unfold on the dining room table in her Chicago apartment.

“You think you’re safe at home, but your past is your past and it’s always going to reveal itself,” the play’s director Andi Chapman said, explaining the decision to rely on a single set to tell a story that spans 37 years and almost 6,000 miles.

Developed in the Antaeus’ Playwright’s Lab, the new work by Stephanie Alison Walker explores how an Argentinian military dictatorship that took root in the mid-1970s still has heart-wrenching effects on a modern family living in the United States.

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During the so-called Dirty War, the dictatorship “disappeared” — kidnapped, tortured and often killed — people viewed as political dissidents.

Babies born to abducted pregnant women were taken and adopted to “politically acceptable” parents, according to Walker.

Currently based in Los Angeles, Walker grew up with an Argentine stepmother but only began to delve into the dark period of the country’s history while living and working in Buenos Aires in the late 1990s.

It took several years before she was ready to tackle the emotionally fraught subject on the page.

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“It wasn’t until I became a mother, myself, that I really came to this story and felt that it was a story I could tell or try to tell,” she said. She began writing her first play about the subject in 2015.

In the play, a follow-up to Walker’s “The Madres,” Gabriela is living a dream — or what seems like one based on magazine articles written about her.

A prominent concert cellist, she lives with her successful architect husband, Marty (played by Seamus Dever), and infant son.

Struggling with more prosaic problems, nothing can prepare the couple for a surprise visit that upends Gabriela’s identity and, with it, their life as they knew it.

Chapman employs what she describes as “spiritual magical realism” to periodically heighten the realistic family drama to the “level of [Ancient] Greek feelings,” citing “Oedipus” as inspiration.

“I think we struck a lovely balance,” Chapman said. “It has whispers of that, but when I push the envelope, it’s pushed organically.”

Denise Blasor, who plays Soledad, the woman who raised Gabriela, channels tragic Greek elements in her consciously “dramatic” personality.

At one point, she drops to her knees wearing a flowing white nightgown and prays with tears brimming.

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“It’s incredibly dark and heavy, but I still go by my No. 1 rule: entertain your audience,” Walker said of the play that debuted in Chicago earlier this year. “This is not an ethics class. It’s a play meant to take people on a journey.”

Outside of the black box, Walker said her work has connected her to the real-life activists still trying to find the nearly 370 remaining children of the disappeared. So far, about 130 have been located, she said.

On Oct. 13 and 17, Walker will be joined by Héctor Rombola, of the Argentinian Network for the Right to Identity, for a conversation after the performance.

While Walker wrote the play thinking “only of Argentina,” both she and Chapman said audience members might draw a connection between events in the play and family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The second we fall asleep on our own human rights issues, we’re in trouble,” Walker said. “For that reason, I felt like, OK, let’s hope people think about other places.”

The play marks a departure for Antaeus’ typical focus on classical works.

“Our hope is that, in addition to our reputation for producing the classics, Antaeus will become a place where future classics are created,” Antaeus co-artistic directors Bill Brochtrup and Kitty Swink said in a joint statement.

“Eight Nights,” the theater’s next production, is a new work that was also developed in its writing lab.

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“The Abuelas” opens tonight and continues through Nov. 25. For more information, visit antaeus.org.

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