Radical drama abounds in OnStage Playhouse’s It’s a Wonderful Vida as the American dream goes on trial and is found guilty. Running at the Chula Vista venue through December 21, this world premiere by playwright/director Herbert Sigüenza is a witty period piece which explores the experiences of a Tejano family living in Corpus Christi circa Christmas 1957 through the application of a situational comedy lens.
As the show begins, the audience learns that the Pacheco Morales family, consisting of father Pancho, mother Aurelia, and three children, Joe, Jimmy, and Alice, is dealing with a host of challenges not so unique to a Mexican American family in the region and time period. While the family has dealt with their share of tragedy from fleeing the devastation of the Mexican Revolution to losing two older sons during their U.S. military service, they still carry hope that they might be able to assimilate enough to achieve the elusive American dream. Pancho (Richard Rivera), with 25 years as a night manager for a local hotel, is hard at work striving to earn the designation of general manager. Aurelia (Veronica Burgess) is a homemaker and supportive mother to three living children. Joe (Javier Guerrero), the oldest, is a Korean war veteran who suffers from PTSD and works as a mechanic in the family’s garage. Jimmy (Jaden Guerrero), the younger son, is looking to fit in with the rich and privileged boys at his school and is motivated by clothes, cars, and prestige. 17-year-old daughter, Alice (Wendy Sanchez), wears her “Mexican American Princess” designation like a pageant sash: she speaks no Spanish and has very little interest in being seen as Mexicana. In fact, she plans to elope with wealthy white boyfriend Fred with the idea that her life will have more opportunity and stability once she is “Mrs. Smith.”
Family dynamics are impacted, however, when a stranger arrives on their doorstep, a young woman from Mexico City named Elena (Hannah Trujillo), who is fleeing her own challenges and circumstances back home. As Joe becomes enamored with their house guest, Jimmy and Alice begin to slip into choices motivated by their desire to be “American,” that considerably impact the future for the entire family. It’s a telenovela wrapped in an American sitcom and there is absolutely no predicting the raucous ride that the script will take you on. Serving as omniscient narrator, reminiscent of guardian angel Clarence Odbody in the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, Saint Nick (played by Nick Young) appears to sidebar the action, informing the audience that he has been sent to earn his Santa Hat by helping a family. Through his active direction, intervention, and invention of new story events, the show continues to repeatedly derail itself and correct with delicious melodrama.
The script is a compelling one, well-written, clever, and presented in both English and Spanish. Since Aurelia does not speak any English (or so we are told) and therefore tackles large portions of her role in Spanish, the storyline relies heavily on the acting chops of the performers to advance the action. This is done quite effectively; though I am bilingual, the guests seated directly next to me are not, yet they had no trouble following the plot. Herbert Sigüenza, who has a storied career in the theater industry, is also the playwright of last year’s A People’s Cuban Christmas Tale, also presented at OnStage Playhouse.
I was intrigued by the premise of the story. The idea of reframing a cherished Christmas tale like It’s a Wonderful Life with the authentic experiences of an immigrant family is a unique one and, interestingly, the playwright has chosen not blind parallelism to the original story, but rather to highlight the experiences of the Pacheco Morales family as they relate to the pressures and stresses of differing levels of privilege for Mexican Americans in midcentury Texas. And, while this storyline could absolutely receive a more serious treatment, instead Sigüenza has chosen to add caricature-like facets to the play, thus enhancing the lens of dark satire felt throughout the production. This leaves the show intentionally campy and keeps the energy level high throughout between the periodic pauses for Saint Nick’s intervention.
It’s worth noting that this is a risky choice since, should the audience miss the tongue-in-cheek nature of specific elements, they might also miss some opportunities for profound impact. That said, the larger than life performances and bold choices of the actors and director, in keeping with the characteristics of novelas and sitcoms (including multiple doors and stairs, a strobe light dream trope, and a laugh track, courtesy of designers Anthony Garcia, Kevin “Blax” Burroughs, and Estefania Ricalde), put the audience in good stead to catch the sarcastic humor at all of its many levels.
An intriguing, culturally-inspired production, It’s a Wonderful Vida has found some real opportunities for social commentary, joining an assembly of other shows aiming to do the same this year around town. With its holiday theme and sharp comedic bent, I expect that it will be well received by audiences through the end of its run on Dec. 21.