Among the 20th century’s catalog of atrocities is the chilling fate of Los Desaparecidos of Argentina — unknown thousands of that country’s citizens who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by right-wing death squads between 1976 and 1983. Some of these people were armed guerrillas, actively fighting the ruling military junta, but most were noncombatant writers, artists, students and trade unionists peaceably opposed to the authoritarian regime. Under its rule, torture and death were meted out to any individual suspected of “socialist” views, or any person who somehow did not toe the fascist line. One infamous torture site was called ESME, an acronym for La Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (the Navy Mechanics School), a deceptively stately building located smack in the center of an upscale neighborhood in Buenos Aires.
In spite of the danger, a group of women, known as Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, would gather every Thursday to demonstrate in the public square, to call attention to the plight of their vanished children and grandchildren. The Madres all wore white scarves embroidered with the names of the missing; even after democracy was restored, they marched in memory of the victims, only halting this activity in 2006. Tragically, several of the women who initiated the movement were themselves kidnapped and brutally assassinated.
Numerous books, films and plays have been generated around these terrible events, and playwright Stephanie Alison Walker adds to the pantheon with The Madres, directed by Sara Guerrero at Skylight Theatre. The play features strong female characters and a reminder of what can happen to ordinary people when democracy falls prey to ruthless, demoniacal villainy (really, you can’t repeat this message too often). But Walker’s setup is too convenient, and Guerrero’s orchestration of pacing and nuance underscores the shortcomings of the material.
The story unfolds in 1978, in the modest home of apolitical senior citizen Josefina Acosta (Margarita Lamas) and her middle-aged daughter, Carolina (Arianna Ortiz). Carolina, to her mother’s chagrin, has been marching with the Madres since the disappearance of her own newly married and pregnant daughter, Belen, several months prior. Both mother and grandmother are deeply anxious about the whereabouts of 19-year-old Belen; while they tell each other (and anyone who asks) that she’s strolling with her musician husband along the Seine in Paris, deep inside they fear the worst.
One person who comes to inquire is Padre Juan (Gabriel Romero), a long-ago acquaintance of Josefina’s who now functions as confessor to soldiers employed at the detention camp. The padre’s unexpected visit has Josefina on her guard; nonetheless, she offers him pastries and mate, and the two make small talk about football — until the padre remarks that he’s seen Carolina marching in the square and warns of the possible consequences.
Later, after Carolina arrives, the women have a second, even more ominous visitor: Diego (Alexander Pimentel), a schoolmate of Belen’s who was once in love with her but now is a soldier stationed at the camp, and proud of it. Like the priest, he asks questions about Belen and seems skeptical when told she’s in Paris.
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Designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s interior establishes the plain but well-kept abode of a dedicated housewife, and Lamas’ Josefina fits right in — a conventional woman in increasingly desperate denial of the savage iniquity surrounding her. But Lamas’ credibility and notable stage presence can’t compensate for the unsubtle exposition in the writing, or the awkward plotting that has Padre Juan showing up on Josefina's doorstep after a five-year lapse. There’s not enough information about their past friendship, and Romero needs lots more directorial help than he gets in turning his spineless cleric into something other than a one-note contrivance.
Diego — suitably drawn by the playwright as the sort of insecure male who’s fodder for the fascist cause — is inadequately portrayed by Pimentel’s tightening jaw and stiff demeanor.
The good news is that the production picks up in the second act, when the frightened and intimidated Belen finally appears, and the production builds to an effective climax. Natalie Llerena gives a subtle, captivating and thoroughly believable performance that communicates the terror her character has endured. And it's complemented by the work of Ortiz who, after a satisfactory but not memorable showing in Act 1, really delivers the goods in Act 2 as a distraught mother helpless to protect her child.
Skylight Theatre Company, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Hollywood; (213) 761-7061, SkylightTix.com. Through April 29.