While entering the theatre and being tempted to do a few salsa steps to the hip-swiveling Latinx music playing all around us, it is impossible not to notice there are mangos – many rotting – piled on the floor of the tropical house’s kitchen. There is also a tree laden with ripening mangos that is intertwined into the decorative, iron-gate entrance to the house – a tree that has both an inviting and comforting look but also an invasive, commanding air as if it is real owner of the property. The family within tends to argue if its fruits are poisonous or not due to rabid bats – just one of their ongoing verbal battles like whether or not to sell the dilapidating family estate or to leave altogether the economic-torn island of Puerto Rico. The roots of the tree, we will learn, wrap around long-buried secrets; but they are only a sample of the hidden skeletons each of the family’s five members has encased within them.
In his Don’t Eat the Mangos – now in a rolling world premiere at Magic Theatre – Ricardo Pérez González has wrapped into a family’s story many elements specific to the troubled history, the rich culture, the vivid language, and the devastating recent events of his home of Puerto Rico. At the same time, he has created a tense family drama often teetering on being a comedy that is universal to all cultures and families who face such issues as sibling jealousies and resentments, sick and dying parents, and long-buried issues that have yet to see the light of day among all those affected. The result in the hands of Director David Mendizábel is a riveting ninety minutes where every minute is packed with multiple gems planted by a stunning cast and creative team to create a masterpiece that urges you to lean in, scoot closer to the edge of your seat, and grip the arm rest for security even as you are not sure whether to laugh, to cry, or to avert your glance to avoid seeing what is about to happen.
Three grown sisters converge into the kitchen of their parents’ house where one of them also resides, erupting into a clash of conversation where words swirl and knock against each other with the speed and force of one of the island’s tropical storms. The current sibling battle is over whose turn is it to answer the ding-ding-ding of another room’s tinkling bell where a bed-ridden father wants his diapers changed. Amidst the “it’s your turn” and “no, it’s yours” (in a mixture of Spanish, English, and Spanglish), words like “little shit” and “bastard” emerge in reference to the dying man who is hooked to an IV and has a tracheotomy.
We can well imagine this ‘you/no you’ back-and-forth has been going on since they were all in pigtails along with accusations such as we hear as one making to the second about the third: “We always let her get away with that shit.” After all, these are sisters much like all sisters; but these siblings are also carrying individually and collectively impending decisions of the present and buried burdens of the past that make their situations unique – some known to all three sisters, some to two, and some to just one.
The eldest sister, Ismelda, a banker, has remained at home and now has primary responsibilities for both her near-dead Papi and her cancer-ridden Mami who is once again undergoing chemotherapy for a return of a disease that first appeared when all the girls were young and at home. On the oft-frozen, staring, and rock-solid features of Ismelda’s face, actor Yetta Gottesman engraves for all to see a lifetime of the eldest’s sacrifices and disappointments and yet also her solid dedication to the two parents and to the house where they all live. But her Ismelda also has a volcanic nature that erupts from her normal, inactive state when she hears her sister Yinoelle is considering moving with her two kids and successful husband off the island, when she discovers the other two sisters want to put the family home up for sale, and when she hears that there is another (in her words) “sexual pervert” in the family (their Uncle Erick) and is scolded for her repulsive reaction (again, her words) to her “fucking PFLAG-look-at-me-I’ve-got-a-gay-son” sister, Wicha.
Elena Estér is the sister Yinoelle who is attempting to break to Ismelda the news of her family’s probable move to the mainland without cracking their sometimes uneasy relationship any further apart. She also has an impatient side that itself can turn into a blast of f-words as she just wants to get on with her life and in turn, urges Yinoelle to do the same.
Wicha, the youngest, is known as the one who cannot keep a secret and must always tell the truth. She can duke it out with her sisters as well as any of them yet is quick to play the baby sister when it is convenient (like refusing to take her turn to bathe Papi). Yet Marilet Martinez will eventually have the night’s most gruesome task of all – one so grotesque we as audience will not see exactly what she is doing but will see enough of a video of the proceedings in her ever-changing, elastic facial expressions almost to turn out own stomachs.
These are sisters who toss among themselves verbal grenades with glee, gusto, and grit; but for all their conflicts, their deep love is visible beyond all their differences of opinion, lifestyle, and intention. This is touchingly clear when the three are at one point all in the same bed remembering together a childhood song and its accompanying hand movements. Together they sing and play like ten-year-olds even as they are dealing with a storm’s blackout; medical equipment failure; and a drooling, incoherent father who must be syringed in his throat not to choke on his own phlegm.
Julian López-Morillas is the raspy breathing, mostly immobile Papi who still can stop all conversation and initiate looks of dread and fear when during a family dinner he suddenly shouts with shocking viciousness, “No more English.” Those telling looks by the three sisters and their mother speak volumes of a history that each carries with this man – histories that can no longer be seen in his weak body, labored breaths, and half-shut eyes but clearly are seen by the looks of each one’s eyes now staring at him. But as we and they will soon learn, those histories are not necessarily shared ones.
The foundation upon which this home is built is the diminutive but tank-like Mami. Wilma Bonet brings a rooted sense of strength, a gleeful spark of joy, and a stubborn streak of determination to her Mami. There is something almost shamanistic about her as she moves through the house on a path somehow predetermined, sighing spells, blessings, and warnings on the household around her often without saying a word. When she does speak, there is often a pause as if she is weighing heavily whether the effort will matter or not enough to speak aloud or whether just better to keep inside her own head. But she too is another of the island’s sleeping volcanoes; and when she does erupt, we as audience cannot help but shudder and cringe. Wilma Bonet gives a performance long to be remembered and relished.
The tree that looms over this family with both its ripe and slow-rotting fruit and its own cache of secrets is only one element of set designer Tanya Orellana’s meticulously composed, tropical home – modest and majestic while at the same time greatly enhanced through the many household and garden properties created by Libby Martinez. The lighting designed by Chris Lundahl brings the tree to life, giving it personality that can be inviting in one moment, mysterious in the next, and then suddenly threatening if not altogether frightening. A symphony of tropical sounds has been created by Sara Huddleston, with the soothing melodies of insects, birds, and wind chimes suddenly interrupted by a storm’s bone-rattling thunder and limb crashes – not unlike the occurrences within the home.
Along with a standing ovation for the powerful, efficient script of Ricardo Pérez González, kudos must flow to Director David Mendizábal. Magic Theatre’s Don’t Eat the Mangoes is nothing short of a must-see because he has found the perfect balance between drama and comedy, between the particular and the universal, and between moments to relax and enjoy and moments where tension and anticipation make it difficult to sit still without gasping aloud.
Rating: 5 E, Must-See
Don’t Eat the Mangos continues through March 13, 2020 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://magictheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.
Photo Credits: Jennifer Reilly