“There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience…” from “The Ox-Bow Incident”
“We’re all born human beings,” one of the characters in Nashville Children’s Theatre’s superb world premiere of “Return to Sender” reminds us. “But we have to earn that e at the end of human with our actions so we can truly call ourselves humane beings.”
Julia Alvarez’s award-winning 2009 novel has inspired a 70-minute stage adaptation by Marisela Treviño Orta commissioned by NCT and Vanderbilt University’s Center for Latin American Studies. The play successfully captures the love, sorrow, hope and humanity found in the 350 pages of Alvarez’s book, and the actors and artisans under Crystal Manich’s terrific direction bring words on the page into thought-and-heart-provoking life. It’s a play that’s recommended for grades 3-8, but there are plenty beyond those years that would benefit from seeing this show.
The book was inspired by Alvarez’s experiences translating at Vermont schools for the children of Mexican migrant workers and draws its title from the name of a 2006 Department of Homeland Security dragnet operation where undocumented workers were seized in a series of raids. “Sometimes it’s only in the world of story that we understand the human side of political and loaded issues,” she has said.
That story centers on 11-year-old Mari Cruz (Amanda Rodriguez), the Mexican-born daughter of undocumented migrant workers, and 11-year-old Tyler Paquette (Lane Williamson), whose family has been farming in Vermont for generations. As the play opens, Mari is composing a letter to her mother (Claudia Quesada) – Maranda DeBusk’s beautiful projections of that letter’s words grace Scott Leathers’ wonderful farmhouse set – who has been missing following her return to Mexico when Mari’s grandmother died:
“Queridísima mamá [Dearest mom], If you are reading these words, it means you are back in Carolina del Norte [North Carolina]! There would be no greater happiness for Papá, my sisters, and me than to hear this good news. We have missed you terribly the eight months and a day (yes, Mamá, I am keeping count!) that you have been gone.
“By the time you get this letter, we will have moved north. …”
Mari, her U.S.-born sisters Luby (Lilliana Gomez) and Ofie (Erica Lee Haines), her father (Matthew Martinez Hannon) and her Tio [Uncle] Felipe (Matthew Benenson Cruz) arrive at the Paquette farm in Vermont where the two men will work. To Tyler, who has just returned from staying with relatives in Boston in the aftermath of his grandfather’s death, they’re initially viewed as trespassers until his mother (Cheryl White) and father (Christopher Strand) inform him they’re on the dairy farm to help save it – Tyler’s dad was recently injured, and without their help the family will lose its farm.
In the black-and-white way youngsters typically view the world, Tyler is sympathetic to his family’s needs but confused by the situation when he finds out the workers may be undocumented. How can his family do what’s right when they’re breaking the law? There are people in the community like Mr. Rossetti (Galen Fott) who certainly have strong feelings about the subject, and some of his fellow students mercilessly taunt him and the Cruz children about it. His journey of understanding begins with a look at the stars through his telescope and continues with the thoughtful guidance of his grandmother (Denice Hicks), his parents, his teacher Mr. Bicknell (DéYonté Jenkins) and the Cruz family…
As William Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet,” players should “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” The entire ensemble does this with naturalistic grace; in gesture, movement, speaking, singing and reactions they infuse each moment in “Return to Sender” with the truth of their characters.
The artisan aspects of this production are just as accomplished as the acting. Leathers’ lighting is a luminous complement to his set design (constructed with care by Pete Nugnis and Joe Mobley as well as Master Electrician/Carpenter Taylor Thomas), David Weinstein’s sound (assisted by Kaitlin Barnett and Audio Engineer Joshua Bennett) is seamless, Patricia Taber’s costumes (aided by the costume shop managed by Alarie Hammock) as always fit the characterizations and story like a glove. Rounding out this great team of pros are Director of Production Rachael Silverman, Stage Manager Teresa Driver, Assistant Stage Manager Hilary Frame, Technical Director Wes Smith, Charge Artist/Props Master Morgan Major-Pfendler and Production Assistant Kate Prosser.
As we’re reminded in “Return to Sender,” we’re all Americans in this hemisphere, north and south. And most importantly we are all humans – beyond the headlines and the political points there is living, loving, laughing, lamenting humanity. We are at our best as a species when we remember that. Thank you to all involved in this incredible, timely, compassionate work.
“Return to Sender,” sponsored by Ensworth School, continues through Oct. 27 at Nashville Children’s Theatre. In addition to performances for school audiences there are public performances Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. (There is no performance this Sunday [Oct. 13].) Additionally, there will be a 7 p.m. show on Friday, Oct. 18 with a post-show panel discussion n partnership with Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies, that will include representatives the center and from Conexión Americas, a local advocate for the immigrant community. Tickets are $17 for youth and $23 for adults. For tickets call 615-252-4675 or visit NashvilleCT.org. Ticket fees apply and group rates are available.