Also see Dean's review of The Mystery of Irma Vep
Sometimes a great source for drama comes from the news. In recent decades there have been countless tragedies during to the migration of poor Mexicans into the United States. Silvia Gonzalez S. took one of these horrifying incidents and made it the focus of the play The Boxcar, currently being performed at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) as the second production in Siembra, The Latino Theatre Festival. The festival is a collection of nine plays presented by 10 New Mexico theatre companies that run from September 2014 through May 2015, all at NHCC.
The playwright based The Boxcar loosely on events in July, 1987, in which 18 men who were escaping life in Mexico to fulfill their dreams in America died in a boxcar. Suffocating heat built up in the car while the train was sidelined for mechanical repairs. A 19th man survived by piercing the floor with a spike, creating a breathing hole. Temperatures in the boxcar reached 120 degrees while it was the sitting in the blazing summer sun between El Paso and Dallas. While Gonzalez S. chose this particular incident, there have been many through the years, mostly involving crowded trucks.
The Boxcar debuted in New York in 2004, where it won the MetLife Foundation's Nuestras Voces National Playwriting Competition. It has since been produced throughout the Southwest.
Veteran New Mexico director Salome Martinez Lutz delivers a strong, though flawed, production. Some of the flaws are inherent in the script itself, while others come from rough spots in the acting. The script feels incomplete and a bit thin given the powerful story Gonzalez S. uses as the backbone of the play. The events unfold in an interesting manner, but given the strength of the news story, the plight of these immigrants could come at the audience like a punch in the face.
Martinez Lutz paces the production well and ekes the most out of the script, especially the scenes in the boxcar as the men joke around while revealing their dreams and difficult histories. The boxcar itself is particularly well presented by set designer Antonio Aragon and scenic artist Joe Stephenson.
The ragged edges of this play could be solved through additional workshopping. There are a number of simple questions the script doesn't answer. Why was the air in the boxcar sufficient when the train is moving but critically insufficient when the boxcar stopped? In searching news reports, I discovered that the heat built up when the boxcar was stalled, reaching 120 degrees. Why was Noel able to survive? Did someone finally open the boxcar minutes after the others died but before Noel died? I came to find out the hole dug in the bottom of the boxcar was sufficient to keep onejust oneof the stowaways alive. While the play shows the characters creating a hole, it wasn't clear that the hole was sufficient to keep Noel alive.
The acting in this production is uneven. Some performances are stiff, while others are powerful, the performances by older men in particular. James R. Chavez as Huero, an air-guitar hombre in a Metallica t-shirt, is sweet, rough, and magnetic. Every time he speaks, the scene comes alive. J. Santiago Candelaria is just right as Pepe. Jose "Pepe" Gallardo is wonderful as the smart-but-na´ve college student Noel. But the character needs fleshing out. As the protagonist, Noel needs to have more at stake. Isn't his life stake enough? Not quite. We need something more in order to fully invest in him, and it's not something that acting alone can deliver, though Martinez Lutz and Gallardo try.
Flawed or not, this piece of recent history is worth preserving artistically. You can't help but nod in appreciation of the effort.
The Boxcar will run through October 26, 2014. Performances are at 7:30 Thursday through Saturday, and at 2:00 on Sunday. For more information or to reserve tickets, call the NHCC at 246-2262, or visit nationalhispaniccenter.org. All performances of Siembra will be held at the NHCC, at 701 4th St SW. Upcoming productions in 2014 include 26 Miles, running November 6-9, 13-16, and 20-23.