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Benjamin Benne’s “Alma” is a classic drama of the immigrant family with a nod to the mystical. Directed by Elena Velasco, Central Square Theater’s production runs through March 26.
Set at the dawn of the Trump era, “Alma” recounts the story of mother and daughter Alma and Angel as they argue the night before Angel’s SAT. Alma immigrated to California while pregnant with Angel and promised to make all of her daughter’s dreams come true — but Angel’s dreams were really Alma’s dreams. With the election of Donald Trump, Alma is threatened with the increased threat of deportation. The play explores that imminent risk and the indirect way it causes tension in the home.
Although “Alma” opens with a mystical dramatization of the mother-daughter bond and contains mystical happenings throughout, the bulk of the play follows a predictable drama between immigrant mother and naturalized daughter in the United States. Angel corrects her mother’s English, and Alma reprimands her daughter for eating Hot Cheetos instead of the rice and beans she made for her. Angel wants to be a zoologist; Alma wants her to be a doctor. The two characters trade this typical back and forth dialogue for an hour, leaving the audience longing for something more.
Karina Beleno Carney (“Alma”) keeps the audience engaged by committing to her physical performance. Carney runs, jumps, and dances across the stage for the hour-long family feud, often spouting her lines out of breath or from the floor.
Playing the immigrant mother masterfully, Carney performs well-executed Mexican household Spanglish throughout the show. This element was essential to the play’s authenticity, overseen by dialect coach Cristhian Mancinas-García. Carney’s mastery of the language was enhanced not just by the words she said but also the words she omitted, calling a drawer, glass, or refrigerator the “thingy” for her lack of English fluency.
Luz Lopez (“Angel”) embraces the challenging role of rebellious daughter, expressing love and hate at the same time. While the script was jarring, throwing Angel at odds with her mother at one moment and begging Alma to sing a song the next, Lopez eases the transitions for a compelling portrayal of an emotional teenager. Even the typical and disappointing reveal of Angel’s secret midway through the show is alleviated by Lopez’s believable delivery. Both Carney and Lopez divert attention away from a stereotypical script into a heartfelt and emotive experience of mother and daughter.
“Alma,” however, cannot be dismissed as a typical immigrant drama because of its hints at magical elements. The TV repeatedly turns on to Trump election coverage without the touch of the remote, the power goes out at the peak of the play, and the stage splits in half as Alma and Angel consider the possibility of separation in the coming years. Director Elena Velasco succeeded in centering these metaphysical elements of the play from the outset.
Lighting designer Andrea Sofia Sala created multiple environments and effects in one space. The stage was covered in lights to reflect Alma’s immigration story and her strange dream at the end of the play. Alma and Angel initiate the drama in a ritualistic breath procession, illuminated only by the superficial starry night. Sala and Velasco emphasize this scene with the dynamic lighting of the stage and the slow pace of the actors’ entrances. While the play may have been improved with a deeper embrace of the supernatural elements to divert from the predictability of the plot, Sala and Velasco made these few moments visually pop.
Central Square Theater’s production of “Alma” brings an instantly recognizable immigrant story to the stage in a real-time family drama. While the plot is driven by sometimes stereotypical dialogue, the true events of the story are a moving reminder of the hardship of immigrant life in the United States. “Alma” is a story as important now as it was back in its 2016 setting.
—Staff writer Jacob R. Jimenez can be reached at email@example.com.
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