The mythic figure of Cesar Chavez literally looms over The Sweetheart Deal, playwright-director Diane Rodriguez’s inspirational account of the United Farm Workers during the union’s storied struggles of the early 1970s. Amid the headlines of Yee Eun Nam’s projections on the sweeping cyclorama that tops designer Efren Delgadillo’s towering set of produce shipping containers, Chavez’s famously weathered features along with his recorded words (courtesy of sound designer Cricket S. Myers) appear as a running recap of an official history familiar to every California schoolchild.
In a sense, that’s as it should be: From its founding in 1962 by Chavez and Dolores Huerta until Chavez's death in 1993, the UFW and Chavez were virtually synonymous. And if the Chicano civil rights icon’s iron grip on the union would later alienate his closest followers and result in crippling missteps, Rodriguez is content to leave that more morally shaded and complicated human tale to the biographers. Her intent, as she states in her program notes, is to dramatize “a story about those who followed … a social movement,” not the man that led it.
So Rodriguez limits her narrative to the so-called Salad Bowl strike of 1970-71 that turned the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley into a bloody battleground as the nascent UFW found itself pitted against the corrupt, Frank Fitzsimmons-era International Brotherhood of the Teamsters in a violent jurisdictional dispute over which union would represent California field workers.
The “sweetheart deal” of the title refers to the Teamsters’ practice of signing contracts favorable to growers, albeit without worker representation. But it also represents the pact made between Mari (Ruth Livier) and Will (Geoff Rivas), Rodriguez’s fictionalized, college-educated, married protagonists, to take a year off from their city lives and come to Delano as volunteer journalists under Chon (Valente Rodriguez), the editor of the union's real-life newspaper El Malcriado.
The couple quickly finds themselves drawn more deeply into the warfare than they had bargained for when organizers Charlie (Peter Wylie) and Lettie (Linda Lopez) press Mari to recruit her Teamsters-steward brother Mac (David DeSantos) as a secret UFW informant. That backfired effort, which leads to Mari’s ultimate sacrifice, also alludes to a less well-understood aspect of a struggle that too frequently divided the loyalties of farmworker families.
Along the way, Rodriguez inserts some nice touches, including a series of interludes in which the cast recreates the legendary agitprop field performances of Teatro Campesino, as well as a heartrending performance of the mournful Ecuadorean ballad “Vasija de barro” by Lopez during the play’s movingly acted climax.
Despite the considerable polish of the production and the fine precision of its ensemble, The Sweetheart Deal ultimately proves a pallid and overly sanitized accounting that offers few genuine insights or compelling surprises. Perhaps that’s because the mystery of why so many in the early UFW were willing to give up so much for what they called “La Causa” is intrinsically tied to the personal charisma of Chavez himself. And to crack that enigma, a playwright would need to risk bringing Chavez down off the projection screen and put him center stage as a living character, replete with the flaws that have been the essence of gripping drama since the Greeks.
Los Angles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown; through June 4. (866) 811-4111, thelatc.org.