Theater Review: “Alma” — A Matter of Justice
By David Greenham
This is an immigrant story that we’ve heard over and over again. Still, despite its familiarity, this particular quest for the American Dream — told in a wonderful and often funny mix of Spanish and English — is compelling and interesting.
Alma by Benjamin Benne. Directed by Elena Velasco. Fight choreography by Cristhian Mancinas-García. Scenic design by Erik D. Diaz, costume design by Kiara Escalera, lighting design by Brendan F. Doyle. Produced by Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through March 26.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are roughly 11 million ‘unauthorized’ individuals living in the United States. Intriguingly, more than two-thirds of them have been here for a decade or more.
Alma (Karina Beleno Carney) is one of them. She lives with her daughter Angel (Luz Lopez) in the Ojai Mira Montez apartment complex in La Puente, California.
Benjamin Benne’s 2022 comic drama introduces us to Alma and Angel at a time of enormous uncertainty and fear. It’s December of 2016. Donald Trump has just won the Presidency against seemingly impossible odds. Wherever you were on the political spectrum, you, like the rest of America, wondered what the future would hold.
Immigrants, and particularly those undocumented individuals, knew that it was a dangerous moment. They were all too familiar with Trump’s brand of dehumanizing rhetoric. Our policies regarding immigration have been troubling (to say the least) throughout our history. The coming of the Trump administration meant that all bets were off — the guard rails were vulnerable.
Alma could face deportation at any time, so her last, best hope was that her U.S.-born daughter could attain a college education and would then be able to sponsor her mother’s green card.
The play begins on a Friday night, the eve of Angel’s last opportunity to take the SATs, a necessary step if she was going to enter college in the fall. That’s been the plan all along – part of a 20-step agreement that mother and daughter made a decade earlier. Number 11 was to earn a college diploma, number 12 was to go to UC Davis, and number 13 was to get a perfect score on the SATs.
But the scheme falls apart when Angel reveals that she’s not going to be taking the test. In fact, she hasn’t even registered for it. The conflict at the core of Benne’s play centers on a generational shift in priorities: the willingness to believe in the American dream depends on faith — in justice and the notion that hard work pays off.
Carney’s 34 year-old Alma believes that the American dream is possible. If not for her, then definitely for her daughter. Alma tells us how she went to work at the age of seven washing dishes in a restaurant. She describes the desperation she felt as a pregnant 17-year-old sneaking across the desert into the U.S. and avoiding border guards. Her goal was to provide her child with a better future. Although they didn’t have much, Alma worked multiple jobs so that Angel had every benefit that her mom could provide.
It’s an immigrant story that we’ve heard over and over again. Still, despite its familiarity, this particular quest for the American Dream — told in a wonderful and often funny mix of Spanish and English — is compelling and interesting.
What’s more, the traditional struggle has become more complicated as American injustice has become more transparent. Alma’s 17 year-old daughter was born in the U.S., and Angel doesn’t particularly like what she sees when she looks beyond high school. Her vision is more cautious. Rather than attempt to be admitted to an expensive college that’s 400 miles away, Angel prefers to take classes at the local community college and see how that goes.
Regardless of her grades and her intelligence, Angel knows that America does not offer a level playing field. In this country, resources are destiny. She makes this point via the story of a classroom project in which students were asked to create a model of a Spanish mission building. Angel relied on her mom to gather cardboard boxes and other items, including small bells. They built the mission together. She was proud of her design when she took it to school. But then she saw that other students had purchased models. The classmates who used kits got an A; Angel received a B. “That will just continue in college,” she concludes.
Much of the 75-minute play is staged as a realistic, kitchen-sink drama that revolves around the battle between a strong-willed mother and her equally strong-willed daughter. But at times the production moves into a deeper and more spiritual place that is appropriately unsettling. The coming Trump administration exerts a ghostly power. The television mysteriously (and clumsily) pops on now and again to news channels populated by shouting talking heads. Alma shares her dream of being stalked by a herd of elephants, threatening and stomping. The symbolism is clear — the GOP will go on the rampage. Dramatist Benjamin Benne’s critique is rooted in the perception that the threat to the immigrant community is propelled by American delusions of purity. As Alma says, “When they look at us, we remind them of a history they want to forget.”
Director Elena Velasco’s energetic direction overcomes some of the script’s challenges. The actors successfully capture the ups and downs of Alma and Angel’s relationship — its humor, sorrow, and love. The performers have a very nice chemistry together. As Alma, Carney moves with ease through a wide-range of emotions — she anchors the show. As Angel, Lopez is best during the character’s quieter moments.
Kiara Escalera’s costumes feel authentic, and Erik D. Diaz has created a set that comes off as appropriately lived in. He also creates an interesting visual effect via clouds made out of chicken wire: among other resonances, the image supports the notion that Alma and Angel are trapped in their environment.
Less successful are Andrea Sofia Sala’s lights and Brendon F. Doyle’s sound. The lighting design succeeds splendidly during naturalistic scenes; it is particularly stunning when a sunset or starry night is called for. However, there are scenes when the light changes are intrusively jarring.
I suspect the sound effects of the moments heard on TV are clips of real speeches. It’s hard to tell. It is unclear whether this decision was made as a matter of design or an equipment issue. The unfortunate result is that the momentum as well as the energy of the production goes on hiatus when the speeches are brought in, and I don’t think that’s the goal of the interruptions.
Alma aims to be provocative by putting faces on a topic that many of us only read about. Looking back to that moment of uncertainty in December of 2016, the pair’s panic seems more than a little quaint. What Trump wrought was way worse than most of us expected — and the troubles aren’t over, given how the issue of immigration has become hellishly political. Alma asserts that “there’s still justice here.” Is she right? Many of us may not be so sure.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.