Only 75 minutes in duration, “Alma” presents a beautifully produced play at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater that grips the audience’s attention from start to finish. It stars Karina Beleno Carney as Alma, a single mother and undocumented immigrant, and Luz Lopez as her rebellious yet fiercely caring daughter, Angel. Set a month after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the play depicts Alma and Angel’s fear for the president-elect’s harsh immigration policy. Carney and Lopez are stellar in their roles, delivering compelling and convincing performances that ultimately carry the production. Their acting is especially impressive considering that, as the play’s only two actresses, they remain in dialogue onstage from the moment the lights go up to the final bows. As director, Elena Velasco did a fantastic job casting the two roles and ensuring that the production was true to what playwright Benjamin Benne intended.
The technical aspects of the play also shine, serving to both complement and express the play’s thematic content. Erik Diaz’s set design, from the devotional candles on the table to the refrigerator stocked with items such as a Tupperware container of rice and beans, give the apartment a “lived-in” atmosphere that adds to the feeling that the audience is sitting in the apartment with Alma and Angel. Kiara Escalera’s costume design, with Alma in a flowery blouse and jeans and Angel in a crop top, short shorts and neon orange sneakers, is effective in highlighting the generational difference between the two, a central component of the play.
I also enjoyed Andrea Sofia Sala’s lighting design and Brendan Doyle’s sound design, with fairy lights surrounding the theater’s interior to represent stars and soft orange hues for a sunset. Lighting and sound design are both instrumental to what I would consider the play’s climax: when the television in the apartment inadvertently turns on and begins to play increasingly louder clips of Trump speaking, with Alma and Angel’s distress at trying to turn the TV off and the flashing television contributing to the chaos until the power goes off and both light and sound suddenly cut. There’s been criticism that these lighting changes are “intrusively jarring” and that “the moment as well as the energy of the production goes on hiatus when [Trump’s] speeches are brought in.” In contrast, I think they effectively express the theme of fear for both Alma’s potential deportation and the incoming administration. Both are events that Alma and Angel are powerless to prevent, represented by their inability to turn the television off, and the abrupt shift from the chaos to the darkness reflects the life-altering nature of both deportation and Trump’s inauguration for undocumented immigrants and their families. Though I agree that the lighting and sound shifts are jarring and almost overwhelming at times, they serve as a perfect example of production enhancing theme.
Overall, one of the most important standout features of “Alma” is that much of the dialogue is written in Spanglish. I appreciate that Alma speaks as a first-generation immigrant whose first language is Spanish, rather than the dialogue being watered down to make it more palatable to a white or otherwise non-Spanish-speaking audience. As a review from “The New England Theatre Geek” accurately states, any displeasure at the lack of English translations from “people who aren’t fluent in Spanish should [inspire] compassion for non-fluent Spanish speakers living in the US.” It’s crucial to keep in mind whose story “Alma” tells, and how essential it is that Benne writes Alma and Angel in the way that they would authentically speak.
The script follows the Aristotelian tradition of the three unities – time, place and action – which serves to make its impact all the more powerful. The first two unities are those of time and place, with the entire play taking place during a single night in the characters’ apartment. Because of this, “Alma” is stunningly immersive as a narrative taking place in a shared space and in real time for both characters and audience. The play includes numerous scenes of intense conflict between Alma and Angel (such as when Alma smacks Angel with a sandal after learning that she didn’t register for her SAT) juxtaposed with incredibly tender scenes (such as when Alma tells Angel that she has a beautiful brain following Angel’s impressive recitation of several wildlife facts). These points of intensity and rapid tonal shifts aren’t defused by any breaks in setting, mirroring the impossibility of “changing scenes” in real life and making the play immediately relatable to anyone who’s ever had the type of late-night conversation that “Alma” depicts.
The third is its unity of action, with the plot generally revolving around the central themes of Angel’s simultaneous rejection of the pressure to take the SAT and go to UC Davis that Alma puts on her and deep fear that her mother will be deported. Near the end of the play, it’s revealed that Alma’s rejection of “el deseo” to go to UC Davis and fear for her mother’s deportation are actually deeply connected – Angel doesn’t want to be separated from her mother and worries that, if she’s 400 miles away, her mother could be deported without her there to prevent it. The last scene of the play is a visually impressive maneuver in which the stage literally splits down the middle, Alma and Angel helplessly moving away from each other until, in the play’s final line, Alma tells Angel she can be whoever she wants to. However, this doesn’t move the pieces of the stage that Alma and Angel stand on back together, leaving a physical separation as the lights go down that could represent anything from Alma’s possible future deportation to Angel deciding to go to Davis even without her mother’s pressure.
“Alma” will play at Central Square Theater until March 26, and I highly recommend seeing it if you can.