Mariela in the Desert satisfies the thirst for meaning

Mariela in the Desert is a beautiful play, a serious piece about the way art works in the lives of the human beings who create it, the possibilities of transcendence it offers. The action unfolds slowly and quietly to the occasional sound of guitar strings — the original music is by Gregg Coffin — and the Denver Center has given it a tender, visually pleasing production.

Mariela and her husband, Jose, are both artists. Once members of the dazzling, artistically and politically revolutionary circle that revolved around Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, at Jose's insistence they moved to the desert in northern Mexico with the idea of finding inspiration and building a creative community. Over the years, Jose continued to believe that the desert was a creative force — "God's canvas" — but though one of his works, "The Blue Barn," won acclaim, he never achieved the success he dreamed of. Mariela raised their children, lively Blanca and Carlos, who suffered from a neurological disorder, and stopped setting brush to canvas almost completely. As the play opens, Jose is dying of advanced diabetes, querulous, frightened, lonely, calling for his wife not to leave him, complaining when she's with him, playing her off against his sister, Oliva, who lives with them. (These scenes reminded me irresistibly of the response novelist John Mortimer got when he asked his father, then on his deathbed, not to be angry. "I'm always angry when I'm dying," replied the old man.) Blanca, estranged and away at university, has been ignoring her mother's pleas that she come home, so Mariela lures her with a telegram saying Jose is already dead. We learn that Carlos died many years ago; his ghost haunts Mariela's imagination.

Everything turns on the character of Mariela, the most complex and interesting in the play. So it's lucky she's portrayed by Yetta Gottesman, who makes her calm, neat and self-contained, anything but the stereotypical wild-eyed artist. All the conflict this woman feels, the passion she possesses — for her children; her difficult, vulnerable husband; her neglected art — seethes within, and without indulging in theatrics of any kind, Gottesman holds us fascinated from beginning to end. She and Robert Sicular, who plays Jose, make their mutual tension and affection palpable and touching. Franca Sofia Barchiesi's Oliva is in many ways Mariela's opposite. In her long, dark dress and with her hair severely in place, she cuts a dignified, old-fashioned figure, a devout Catholic in a household that has no use for religion — but she's also graceful, sentimental and a bit childish. Blanca finally arrives home accompanied by her lover, an art history professor who is as much her senior as her father is to her mother; this man reveals to Mariela that her daughter is a talented painter in her own right. Vivia Font is charming when she plays Blanca as a child, and less so — a touch too plaintive — as the adult version. The role of Blanca's gringo lover, Adam, is not as well-defined as the others. He's an observer more than anything else, and we never quite understand what makes him tick — though we do learn that he lost a good university post because he refused to adjust to the prevailing critical winds, so that, like Jose and Mariela, he's been disappointed in his ambitions. Sam Gregory is appropriately smart and low-key in the role.

The desert itself is an important character, alternately a place of truth and inspiration and a thirsty, desiccated wasteland. Thanks to Vicki Smith's lyrical set design and Don Darnutzer's lighting, at times the home and the desert become almost one, the walls seeming to dissolve in sky, scrub or sand, and so it makes sense that the play's resolution should be communicated in a series of vibrant, startling images rather than anything verbal.

Mariela in the Desert isn't perfect. A couple of the characters aren't fully fleshed out, and the dialogue is sometimes repetitive. But the script throbs with quiet feeling, and the complex, thoughtful things it has to say about family, art, vocation, isolation and community will stay with you for a long time.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman