There's a sad and bitter scene that occurred many years ago when my mother was dying of cancer that seems to illustrate precisely the conundrum at the heart of Edwin Sanchez's Unmerciful Good Fortune. My mother was in the hospital, very close to the end, lying silent and shrunken in her white bed, with my sister, my stepfather and myself surrounding her. A young intern came into the room with transfusion equipment, and my sister suddenly began shouting at him. "Leave her alone," she said. "She doesn't need all this, all your tubes and drugs and procedures." Our stepfather nodded to the doctor to continue his work, and he guided Eva firmly out of the room, where they faced each other in the corridor. "Can't you see she wants to die?" Eva demanded. "I hear her every night: 'Oh, God, why don't you take me? Oh, God, why don't you take me.' You hear it, too."
"You don't understand," my stepfather said, with that helpless, ironic little shrug common to Eastern European Jews of his generation. "She doesn't mean it. It's different with us. With us, it's a figure of speech."
To this day, I haven't decided whether his response revealed obtuse denial or profound understanding. I knew at the time that Eva was right, and that my mother wanted to die. And I also understood to my bones how much she wanted to continue living. It's a conundrum I've encountered again and again since. I visit a dying friend on a Tuesday and find her peaceful, resigned and eager to discuss what music she wants played at her funeral. By Thursday, she's smiling brightly and describing the European vacation she's planning for the following summer.
The central character in Unmerciful Good Fortune embodies this ambiguity. She's a young woman named Fatima who believes she can see into other people's futures. As the play opens, she has been arrested for poisoning several customers -- including an eight-year-old girl -- at the fast-food joint where she works. Her defense: She has seen the desperation of these people's lives and is saving them from still uglier futures. Dispensing with the services of a lawyer, Fatima demands to speak with a specific district attorney, Maritza -- a woman who spends her days struggling against the callous idiocy of her boss and her evenings tending to her dying mother, Luz. "Give me your hand," Fatima insists when Maritza enters her cell. "Give me your hand."
Barely out of her teens, the product of a violent home, Fatima is a former gangbanger. She's manipulative, cruel and arrogant, but she's also capable of melting into tenderness. You can see her as one of the three Fates, snipping the thread of human life at will, or you can see her as a troubled, vulnerable child. Jackie Billotte plays the role with a fierce, dark brilliance that makes Fatima's piercing effect on everyone she encounters entirely credible. Begging Maritza to remove the splinter she says she carries in her heart, she promises that she can do the same for Maritza. As her power over the attorney grows, it becomes impossible to tell whether that power is evil or redemptive.
Luz's dying is complicated -- as most deaths are -- by everything she has left unresolved in her life. Maritza's father, Pito, played with sad, heavy patience by Manuel Roybal, still sees his wife as the child bride he married many years earlier. He's devoted to her. He feels his own life will be over once she's gone. But Luz hates and resents Pito for stealing her youth. She curses him, and she's also scornfully dismissive of the devoted Maritza, preferring to fantasize about dancing in front of dozens of love-struck men with a second daughter, Maritza's long-dead sister, a girl who was vivacious, daring and seductive -- in short, everything Maritza herself is not.
But when Luz isn't flying on her drugs, she's miserable and longs to die. Is it Maritza's duty to help speed that death? And if she did so, what would her true motivation be -- a desire to help her mother, or the desperate need to obtain relief for herself? Fatima, of course, entertains no ambivalence on the topic; for her, the answer is clear.
Director Michael R. Duran does wonders with his limited technical resources at the John Hand Theater. His set and sound design are evocative and meticulous, as is Richard H. Pegg's lighting. The acting is excellent, too. Billotte simply rivets in the role of Fatima, and Laura Chavez is an earnestly endearing Maritza. Verl Hite and Clint Heyn do fine work as Maritza's fellow DAs, and Sherry Coca-Candelaria gives Luz a feisty energy.
Unmerciful Good Fortune is not without flaws. Some of the scenes, particularly those in Maritza's home, go on too long. Luz seems remarkably strong-voiced and lively for a dying woman, and Maritza's failed relationship with her own six-year-old daughter -- a mirror of her mother's with her -- is only sketchily depicted. But the play has genuine emotional depth and sweep. Sanchez is dealing with the big questions, and he's doing it with refreshing honesty, originality and guts.
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