The Nextstage at Geva Theatre Center is offering the fully staged, world premiere production of September Shoes,by Jose Cruz González --- a work Geva helped develop as part of its 2002 Hibernatus Interruptus Festival. A very accomplished Hispanic director and cast give this mysterious, passionate play a vibrant, affecting performance. But though it ends in clear, emotionally rewarding redemption, this quirky mix of jolting theatrical images doesn't yet resolve into completely satisfying drama.
I'm not sure that Troy Hourie's confusing, scenic design helps to elicit the play's meaning, though it certainly evolved with the participation of González and director Michael John Garcés. The giant red chair in the script now lies on its side, alternately becoming walls, a door, and other elements of various scenes. It seemed less symbolically suggestive (and a hell of a lot clearer) when it was just a chair onstage in the staged reading of Shoes at the Hibernatus Festival. Nevertheless, the set is striking, and Kirk Bookman's lighting is beautiful and emotionally supportive, as usual.
We first see the chamber maid, Cuki (Socorro Santiago), sitting near her monstrous pile of discarded shoes, talking about shoes, and suggesting what the play's title might refer to (never mind!), before she steals a shoe from the room she's cleaning at the motel. Later, we find that quixotic Alberto Cervantes and his wife Gail (Jaime Tirelli and Maria Elena Ramirez) occupy that motel room in the town of Dolores, where they grew up. They are back for the funeral of Gail's aunt, Lily Chu (also played by Santiago), a partly Chinese woman who raised Gail. Alberto is having very realistic dream-visits from his dead sister Ana (Alicia Velez).
After scenes showing how Cuki met and married her husband Juan (David Anzuelo), had children with him, and then started working, we see Cuki nail Alberto's shoe to the door of her house, where she's also nailed the shoes of her husband and three children. When Gail visits this kookie cleaning woman, she sees Alberto's shoe on Cuki's door. Later, we see Alberto and Ana as children, and we learn how Ana died and how Juan and his children died. We also find out why Cuki keeps spitting in the face of the graveyard caretaker, Huilo (also played by Anzuelo). Finally, we see Little Gail with her Aunt Lily in Lily's store. Little Gail is also played by Velez. Cuki steals Gail's shoe, takes it home, and nails it up, too.
Got that? Actually, if three or more actors were hired to play the doubling roles, we could be sure that it's not Ana but Little Gail we're looking at, and that the man Cuki married isn't the same one she keeps spitting on. If the set was realistic, the play would have a lot less confusion, too, though it also might lose some almost allegorical suggestions. At the end, we get forgiveness, compassion, and a sense these characters are moving on past old miseries and mistakes --- they all decide to stay and try to be happy in Dolores ("sorrow," in Spanish).
Initially, Ramirez is a bit off-putting, as her Gail seems shrill in her distress. But we'll learn why this is so, and ultimately find Gail not only sympathetic, but heroic in her newfound independence. I like the sharp answer she gives to her husband's pompous insistence that he's a physician whose work is to help people: "You're a cosmetic surgeon!"
As Alberto, Tirelli gets what comedy there is in his role and evokes much feeling for his still-painful anger over his sister's pointless death long ago. Velez is charming as the spectral Ana. Anzuelo makes nice distinction between his sexy, carefree Juan and the tragically disturbed Huilo, who has to suffer two violently convulsive seizures onstage that are genuinely upsetting to watch.
Best of all, Santiago's Cuki is a compelling narrator, a wry observer, a wrenchingly tragic survivor, and a weird woman whose strange behavior is unsettling, but funny. Santiago really spits a mouthful onto Anzuelo, who flinches as the audience gasps each time. She seems possessed when stealing and nailing up the shoes, and yet our reaction evolves from incredulous amusement to sympathy as we gain insight into the comfort this image --- a remembrance of those who wore the shoes --- provides for Cuki.
The play's final image --- a memorial observance where flowers are placed on the graves of Cuki's family, Alberto's sister, and Gail's Aunt --- has none of the mixed emotions of the drama's earlier oddities. September Shoes comes to rest in beauty.
September Shoes,by Jose Cruz González, directed by Michael John Garcés, plays The Nextstage at Geva Theatre Center,75 Woodbury Boulevard, through Sunday, June 22. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tix: $19-$25 ($12 for the 9:30 p.m. Saturday performances). 232-GEVA (4382), www.gevatheatre.org.