There is a sense both of sumptuous grandeur and of the epic in A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story. The former is due entirely to José Luis Valenzuela’s handsome and masterful production, while the latter can be chalked up to playwright Evelina Fernández’s big ambitions. Her quasi-musical chronicle of three generations of the fictional Garcia family strives to do for the country’s 34 million Mexican-Americans what August Wilson’s monumental Pittsburgh Cycle did for African-Americans — namely, represent a century of the Mexican-American experience in a mythic work of enduring literary significance.
Each of the plays that comprise the trilogy= previously received individual Latino Theater Company stagings by Valenzuela in 2011 and 2012, albeit out of chronological sequence. This production is the first opportunity to see the three parts stitched together on the same set and in their proper narrative order.
The good news is that Fernández often comes tantalizingly close to achieving her high aims. Her matrilineal tale of immigrant aspiration set against the cataclysms of 20th-century Mexican and American history plays as equal parts sentimental comedy, dark psychological melodrama and magical-realist jukebox musical.
The narrative opens on Francois-Pierre Couture’s majestic, two-tiered box set (vibrantly accented by Yee Eun Nam’s projections) with the play Faith, in which the aged Garcia matriarch and narrator, Esperanza (Lucy Rodriguez), introduces her younger self (Olivia Cristina Delgado) on the occasion of her Náhuatl quinceañera at the midpoint of the Mexican Revolution. “The women in this family cannot lie,” her Grandmother (Fernández) tells her — it's a curse of female frankness that soon embroils the girl in an affair with parish priest Silvestre (Sal Lopez), sending the lovers fleeing across the border to Arizona.
The musical kicks in when the story jumps to the World War II years, where the couple now has three teen daughters, Faith (Esperanza America), Elena (Delgado) and Charity (Ella Saldaña North). The high-spirited girls’ ambition to sing at a talent contest sponsored by a local Latino radio personality (Geoffrey Rivas) collides with Esperanza’s rigid Catholic mores — a struggle that parallels Silvestre’s efforts to organize Mexican copper mineworkers in the face of blacklisting and anti-union violence. America, Delgado and North are impressive in their Andrews Sisters–like three-part harmonies on a half-dozen excerpted big-band hits (under Rosino Serrano’s confident musical direction) as the family is swept up and splintered by the tidal forces of history.
Hope, by far the strongest piece in the trilogy, picks up the story of the youngest Garcia daughter, Elena (now played by North), who has become the doormat wife to the philandering and physically abusive Charlie (Rivas) and the long-suffering mother of five in suburban, 1960s Phoenix. While the play mainly deals with duel romances between the cynical and bullying eldest daughter Gina (America) and the military conscript Rudy (Bobby Sam Golzari), and Elena’s unconsummated affair with the married family friend Enrique (Lopez), it is Delgado’s standout performance as the JFK-obsessed youngest daughter and her imaginary phone calls to the president during the Cuban Missile Crisis that serves up the bulk of Hope’s engaging comic delights. The play's selection of early-’60s pop music is particularly well-integrated, especially the old Everly Brothers standard, “Love Hurts,” which emerges as a emblematic leitmotif that effectively underscores the family's wrenching turmoil.
The least even of the plays is Charity, the final installment, which opens on the day of Pope John Paul II's death in 2005. The middle-aged Gina (Fernández) and Rudy (Robert Beltran) are married and living in Los Angeles with the centenarian Esperanza. As the secular Gina channels her grief over their son Emiliano (Golzari), who was killed in the Iraq War, onto the deceased pontiff, the family is visited by guileless and saintly Juan Francisco (Xavi Moreno), a distant cousin from Mexico, who is emigrating to the United States.
Rodriguez shines as a now-cantankerous and geriatric matriarch, engaged in a running dialogue both with her dead husband and the martyred Emiliano, and Lopez is particularly moving as Gina’s emotionally crippled, Vietnam-scarred brother Silvestre. But the play’s lapses into preachy indignation over the foreign-policy transgressions of the George W. Bush years rarely feel organic to the action, and its over-insistent tone of redemption is more forced than convincing.
Still, a uniformly effective ensemble under Valenzuela’s crisp and seamless direction serves to elevate Fernández’s lyricism into something that is poignant and, abetted by Pablo Santiago’s dynamic lights, John Zalewski’s lush sound design and Carlos Brown’s understated period costuming, finally powerful and persuasive. Whether or not A Mexican Trilogy successfully achieves the literary and cultural import of, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Gabriel García Márquez novel whose theme of characters controlled by the past Fernández most seems to be echoing, it is undeniably the finest work the Latino Theater Company has mounted in years.
Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 Spring St., downtown; Through Oct. 9. (866) 811-4111, thelatc.org.