Sunday, March 4, 2018

UTEP's Production of Lydia Burns Bright at KCACTF

Under Kim McKean’s expert direction, Octavio Solis’s Lydia creates a claustrophobic cocoon of heartbreak, agony, and despair that thankfully does not release its grip until well after the final curtain falls. Buoyed by fiery performances and technical prowess, McKean’s production warrants nothing less than absolute adulation.

In 1970s El Paso, the Flores family attempts to cope in the wake of a tragedy afflicted upon their 17-year-old daughter Ceci, which has left her cognitively and physically handicapped due to traumatic brain injury. Only able to communicate with her family through a series of strained gestures and guttural outbursts, she relies on patriarch Claudio, mother Rosa, and brothers Rene and Misha for her survival—that is until Rosa hires a maid, Lydia, as a caretaker for Ceci. Lydia’s arrival sparks a fire that burns brighter and brighter, engulfing the family until the facts surrounding Ceci’s injuries come to light. By the time the truth emerges, their lives have unraveled past the point of recognition.

Lydia provides an unblinking look at how grief manifests when coping (or not) with a disaster. What makes these characters so compelling to watch is that they are by no means perfect. Their actions while navigating their misery are sometimes flawed, sometimes unthinkable, and always captivating. The production raises difficult questions about xenophobia, the detriments of blind religious dedication, and appropriate types of love without flinching or batting an eye. The complexities of love, the intricacies of revenge, and the difficulties of forgiveness ignite and crackle in a blinding blaze that spares nothing and no one. The effect is breathtaking.

The cast radiates excellence from start to finish. In the titular role, Ana K. Miramontes creates an empathetic and vivid catalyst from which the play’s action unfolds. As Ceci’s parents, Jonathan Contreras and Rebecca Rivas impeccably embody the precarious balance of emotions guardians face when disaster strikes their children. Older brother Rene is painted with great emotional depth and vulnerability by Gabriel Franco-Kull. Cristian A. Barrio presents cousin Alvaro as a pained figure torn between his love of family and duty to his country. Tony Romero’s Misha transforms expeditiously from put upon younger brother to defender and protector whose actions are simultaneously unthinkable and impossible to ignore.

But the night belongs to Gabriela Torres as Ceci. She makes the seamless transition from a poetic prophet of magical realism to helpless creature appear easy. In one moment her lithe movements flow like a willow, in the next, she contorts and gnarls her body like the knots of an oak. Her performance is a master class in dexterity and dedication that truly earns the label of tour de force.

Most of Torres’s performance takes place on a mattress on the floor of Ross Fleming’s set. Plastered with orange shag, black leather, and floral wallpaper, it perfectly encapsulates a lower-middle class aesthetic, providing passage instantly back to the 1970s. His translucent walls reveal a gigantic mural of LoterĂ­a cards which highlight the omnipresent dichotomy between Mexican heritage and the American dream. Light design by Nita Mendoza guide attentions and imaginations, alternating between sepia tones of nostalgia and puddles of luminescence that cast shadows of grief and uncertainty. Costume design by Sofia Perez does not call attention to itself, instead helping to identify the characters without succumbing to cultural tropes and stereotypes.

An experience like Lydia is that rare thing, the match that lights the fire of what good theatre should do. It questions. It challenges. It refuses to be ignored. In the waning moments of the play, patriarch Claudio asks, “Is everything okay?” Lydia is more than okay.

It is extraordinary.

---Shane Strawbridge


  1. This article is well written...

  2. I'd just like to point out that while Nita Mendoza is a great light designer, the show was designed by Patrick Marshall, a UTEP alumni who was unable to attend the competition.

    1. Thank you for the comment. At time of press, Nita Mendoza was the only lighting designer listed in both the paper and online program provided by UTEP. If Patrick Marshall is indeed the designer, I apologize for the omission in the review; however, I can only report the information that is presented to me.

      Thanks for reading,