Aside from Buckeye football, there’s only one redeeming factor about Columbus, Ohio: It’s not Toledo (ask me how I know). The place is as Midwestern as it gets, and not at all in a good way – which is why it actually makes a reasonable setting for Tatiana Suarez-Pico’s Lesson 443, the world-premiere entry at MOXIE Theatre.
Its Ohio State University, for example, might be a tempting prospect for 14-year-old Carynne (Cari) Gonzalez, whose father Manny raised her in Mexico and seeks quality college opportunities for her in the U.S. – but Columbus also has a real-life white-bread racist component that absolutely does not quit, that prospect arguably compounding Cari’s wholesale paranoia about her accent and dark skin and how America interprets them (the world’s crazy signals confuse her as it is).
This production is pretty good in several respects – the script comports with Jennifer Eve Thorn’s less nuanced directing style, and Cari’s escapist tendencies nicely come full circle as she conjures up her dead mom Maggie’s ghost. But Suarez-Pico’s premise pales in comparison to her characters, and that’s where the rubs set in. If the clever and savvy Cari can will an apparition to life, especially on the strength of only a set of photographs, she surely has the fortitude to overcome her fear and loneliness, especially in this age of potential for personal empowerment. It shouldn’t take a preponderance of discussion to resolve that, much less a two-hour play.Maggie, who’s white, died of cancer when Cari was a baby, and she’s a kid in a candy store amid her channeling. She bombards Cari with countless tips on accent-abating diction, appearance and life lessons, No. 443 proving the toughest of all. But Maggie (Wendy Waddell) is a much more interesting character than all that – she’s not meddling in Cari’s upbringing so much as spouting off about her rocky, repressive real-life marriage to would-be poet Manny, and Cari’s the befuddled sounding board.
Cari also finds herself in the lanky arms of R (Anton Mabey), a geeky Goth who’s too polite to assume anything about his and Cari’s relationship. A hint of trepidation colors his politeness with Manny (Paul Araujo) as he asks if he can date Cari – Manny’s considered response fuels R’s respect for dad, but Cari’s anger and frustration color her relationship with Manny in ways R has a hard time digesting.
While America’s racist side is unerringly disgraceful, Americans themselves are quite the opposite.
On and on unfold the conflicts, with Cari in a brazen display of hatred for her aunt Lottie and Manny waxing uncharacteristically vulnerable in the presence of Lottie, whom he genuinely likes. Indeed, lesson 443 is applicable to every character (except maybe R) amid the festering resentments and fears, leaving Cari the most sympathetic persona of the lot.
That’s why this premise works less well than it should. Far too much is made of Cari’s merely topical traits (her accent and looks) in the face of the others’ roily relationships, especially because we’re never exposed firsthand to the bullying Cari so dreads. Cari’s fears simply don’t rise to the level of the good understories that otherwise fuel them, leaving the conclusion to dangle in unfulfilled expectation.None of this is meant to take away from Araujo’s very, very good turn as Manny. Manny has a measuredness about him as he considers his responses to the daughter he loves so dearly, and Araujo rides this trait like a master. Waddell and Mabey enjoy their assignments, and their characters would likely take to each other’s company if they’d had a chance to meet. And please make note of Daniela Millan, a student at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, as she shows excellent body control and pinpoint vocalisms in her work as Cari.
Natalie Khuen’s scene design could use more disparity between Cari’s bedroom and the spaces beyond it, but Conor Mulligan’s lights tend to mitigate this. The rest of the tech is fine, with propmaster Angelica Ynfante somehow unearthing the spot-on perfect guitar Millan uses in an early scene. Great little nuances like that can’t help but define the bigger picture.
While America’s racist side is unerringly disgraceful, Americans themselves are quite the opposite. Cari’s experiences in Mexico may have brought her to a different conclusion, but her fears are unfounded in any event. Her accent and dark skin are only symbols of those fears, and this show’s very nice production values can’t disguise the short shrift Suarez-Pico assigns the traits beneath those symbols. That approach could stand some jiggering, even as the bulk of the show is on the right track.
This review is based on the matinee performance of May 3. Lesson 443 runs through May 24 at MOXIE Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. $27. (858) 598-7620, moxietheatre.com.