Everything that playwright Lisa Loomer says in Living Out about the blindness of the middle class -- even the kindest and most liberal-minded among them -- to the problems of the people who work for them is true, and desperately needs saying. This is a cruel culture for poor people. Low-income mothers who have no access to daycare are required to work, so they patch together fragile chains of help from relatives and neighbors. They journey to jobs in cars held together with prayer and string or on inadequate public transportation. Immigrants, particularly those who are illegal, shoulder extra burdens. All over America, these people staff restaurant kitchens, clean houses and office buildings, cut lawns, work construction and take care of children. If they didn't, the entire economy would falter. Yet it's an indication of the racism and xenophobia fueling the current debate on immigration that one couple left the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Living Out at intermission, raging because the play is sympathetic toward illegal immigrants.
Loomer explores social issues through the relationship between Ana, a Salvadoran nanny, and her employer, Nancy, a high-powered entertainment lawyer married to a public defender. Ana has two sons, one still in El Salvador with her mother. Because prospective employers lost interest when they learned she had a child with her -- "I need someone who can make my kids a priority," said one -- Ana lied to Nancy to get her position.
Nancy knows nothing about the life Ana has fled, and she harbors many of the usual stereotypes about Latinos, but she's a decent enough sort and wants to understand. "Was it bad for you in your...village?" she asks. The play raises the possibility that a real friendship might develop between these women. They do have a few things in common: charmingly immature husbands, for instance, and a desire to combine motherhood with a profession. (Ana was in dental school when she was forced to flee El Salvador.)
Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 28, 303-893- 4100, www.denvercenter.org
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The beginning of Living Out can be funny, particularly when the park-bench complaints of a trio of affluent mothers about their help are echoed by the complaints of their nannies, clustered later at the same bench. One of the nannies, we discover, is as quick to stereotype as the white women.
Loomer's points are all worth making, but argument isn't drama, and the characters in Living Out seem to have been created solely as the playwright's mouthpieces. We've met affluent liberals like Nancy and her husband, Richard, before, and a lot of the dialogue is at a sitcom level. As for Ana, she's purely sad and saintly. We think for a moment that her husband, Bobby, will cause real problems -- and some genuine dramatic interest -- but it turns out he's a honey bear at heart. When tragedy inevitably strikes, it isn't ragged or breath-stealing; it just feels like a final -- and unarguable -- debating point.
Wendy C. Goldberg's direction lacks urgency, too, and the action feels slow. The fact that the Space Theatre is in the round is also a problem; the set requires the couples to share one apartment, which means designer Lisa M. Orzolek has had to create a featureless room that could belong to either. Tightness, swiftness and stylization might have served the play better. Still, Romi Dias makes Ana grounded and gentle, and there's an edge of hysteria to Makela Spielman's funny, appealing Nancy. Rey Lucas is a charmingly boyish Bobby, and Christopher Burns a solid Richard.
This is a virtuous play, but all evening I waited for some kind of leap of imagination. Maybe Ana and Nancy would get drunk together -- as Truman Capote once did making the rounds with his maid. At one point, the three nannies speculate on what would happen if the entire Latino community of Los Angeles stopped going to work, an event that would paralyze large portions of the city. Yes, I thought. Some excitement -- a twisted Lysistrata. But it didn't happen.