Homefires burning

I recently received a letter signed by "members of the theater community" about a very negative review I gave to Echo Theatre's production of Maria Irene Fornes' Fefu and Her Friends. Once I recovered from what I assumed to be a shot at my masculinity (these members said I was known as "Jimmy, Jimmy, Quite Contrary"; what else could it mean that "Jimmy" was interchangeable with "Mary" in their minds?), I savored the missive's main beef: that a quality production should be appreciated whether it coincides with a critic's personal tastes. As I recall, nods were given to superb set design and to any actor who wasn't frothing at the mouth with self-indulgent intensity or being squeezed breathless by the pretentious role handed to them.

I am now in the position of giving another, though more qualified, nix to Fornes' The Conduct of Life, currently being staged by Cara Mia at the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts. I say "qualified" because it seems that Fornes, born in Cuba but residing most of her life in America, is tackling a much more important topic with this 1985 script -- namely, how Latin American military culture intertwines sexual and economic subjugation with its terroristic policies, and how the social elites respond gratefully at being excused from the misery by perpetuating it.

Doubtlessly, Maria Irene Fornes' simplistic view of humanity is informed by acquaintance with outrageous injustice -- it's easy to pick the heroes and the villains in a crowd of torturers and torture victims. Yet what can be powerful political counter-propaganda in the context of a brutal regime can seem like, well, just plain propaganda outside of it. That's the main problem with The Conduct of Life, which peers through the household curtains of inhuman military investigator Orlando (Marco Rodriguez) and his shallow wife Leticia (Dolores Godinez). Their cheeky maid Olimpia (Miranda Martinez) can't make breakfast without cracking sarcastic class-based jokes, although she, at least, grows to become friends with Nena (Marinca Calo-Oy), the young woman held captive in the house and repeatedly brutalized by Orlando. Leticia slowly begins to suspect the presence of her compulsory guest, and her dissatisfaction with her callous husband escalates into a rage that causes a desperate act.

Director Marisela Barrerra has elicited uneven performances from the cast of The Conduct of Life. Miranda Martinez, in particular, turns many of the scenes she's in to lead; her stumbling delivery of a comic tirade about coffee preparation killed what was supposed to be a spontaneous, defensive rant. Joseph Rodriguez as Alejo, a comrade of Orlando's, is so phlegmatic, his dialogue is nearly incomprehensible; we don't know what part he plays in this grotesque domestic portrait. The kind of political high-mindedness that characterizes a script like The Conduct of Life can present a trap for theater artists; the more justified the cause for which the playwright is fighting, the more details can be taken for granted in the rushing heat of production. What's forgotten is that these important truths need more, not less, care in their delivery. The more audiences recognize themselves in situations that are essentially foreign to their lives, the faster they can be converted to the campaign for compassion.