“Mariela in the Desert” Presented by Latino Theatre Projects

The fragile Mexican household of the Salvatierra family is the centerpiece of “Mariela in the Desert” now playing at the Theatre Off Jackson. In this earnest production the patriarch José, a painter of some repute, is dying of diabetes. His dutiful wife, Mariela, cares for him, makes the best of the presence of his stern sister, mourns her dead son, and tries to focus on family rather than her own art. She too has talent, but hers is unrecognized.

They live an isolated life out on the desert, There, José had hoped, but failed, to set up an artists’ colony after he abandoned the city and the creatively rich circle of Mexican painters that included Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. It’s not a happy picture for Mariela, and it only gets worse as the play progresses.

Directed by Fernando Luna, it opens on a fine set by Maggie Larrick. Central is the large bed, with its Mexican blanket, the bed where José will badger his wife, and welcome home the daughter whom the wife convinced (through a lie) to come and visit the patriarch before he died.

Although the play won the 2004 National Latino Playwriting Award, it’s got far too many subplots for me. There are the complicated family relationships, the difficulties of an artist’s life, the role of women in Mexican households, the impact of creativity on family, the ultimate price of deceit. It’s Mariela’s story that’s supposedly the central element, but that focus gets muddled. We didn’t need the sister-in-law or the art professor.

Though this play is flawed and the production is static, I was glad to have seen it, glad to be introduced to a work that might well be ignored by other theatres.

Through April 9 at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 7th Ave. S., Seattle, (www.latinotheatreprojects.org)

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