Identity Crisis

Performances Soar Over The Earthbound 'Woman Who Fell From The Sky.'

IN 1982, IN Kansas City, a mysterious dark-skinned woman appeared on the streets. She was diving into trash cans for food--nothing unusual about that in big-city America--but this woman seemed especially odd. She wore a strange costume of multiple skirts and blouses in a rainbow of patterns. The only sounds she uttered were guttural cries, unintelligible to everyone around her.

Naturally, she was deemed insane.

"She's crazy, she's like a wild animal," says a cop early on in The Woman Who Fell from the Sky/La Mujer Que Cayó del Cielo, a play based on the woman's life.

Even worse, she fails to answer the cop's questions. When he shouts, "What's your name?" and her only response is a look of terror, he slaps her around and calls her "bitch." With that, she's shipped off to a big state mental institution, where she will stay for 12 long years.

Based on a true story, the opening play in Borderlands Theater's 15th season is a nightmare accounting of what happens when a monolingual Tarahumara woman from Chihuahua's remote Sierre Madre ends up in the hands of psychiatric authorities in late 20th-century America. What happens is not pretty.

No one knows who she is or what language she speaks, and no one makes much effort to find out. Rita, the name she eventually reveals, is drugged and isolated, diagnosed as a schizophrenic with a double personality. After a bit she communicates with her captors in pidgin Spanish, spinning traditional Tarahumara tales of Gods and souls. She herself, she says, fell out of the sky; that's why she's in this strange place. But these ways of making sense of the world get her branded as delusional.

Written by Victor Hugo Rascón Banda, a Mexico City lawyer and playwright who specializes in true stories of injustice, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky meshes a standard critique of the inhumanity of insane asylums (think Girl, Interrupted) with a hard look at cross-cultural intolerance. Rita is endangered not only by her doctors' slavish devotion to psychiatric dogma, but by their willful ignorance of different world views. In Kansas, Dorothy notwithstanding, it's not OK to drop out of the sky.

The best thing about this play is Mexican actress Luisa Huertas, a wonder in the role of Rita. Gifted with an eminently expressive face, Huertas lights up when Rita remembers giving birth and cradling her infants, and darkens with panicked incomprehension when her Tarahumara garments are ripped off and replaced with a hospital gown. Rita's overly long course of drug treatment eventually damages her body, and Huertas effectively adds a repertoire of tics to her portrayal of this spirited woman.

Arturo Martinez offers up an empathetic reading of Rita's eventual savior, a Mexican-born psychologist, and Eva Tessler and Tim A. Janes are suitably obtuse as Rita's doctors. The ensemble cast of seven moves easily among the three languages of the play--English, Spanish and Tarahumara (Rarámuri)--and the oral translations are integrated nicely into the drama.

The script is a problem, though. Playwright Rascón has inexplicably squandered much of the emotional capital of Rita's gripping story. He's structured his 90-minute play as a series of episodes. Each one is as important as the other, so his play never builds toward a climax. In fact, he curiously avoids putting the story's greatest moments on stage. The audience doesn't see Rita learning that she will be released--we only hear of it from the shrinks--nor do we see her at long last leaving the institution. Without such dramatic moments, the play becomes slow and tedious at times.

The sketchy narrative often leaves the audience as confused as Rita herself. The passage of time is poorly conveyed; the outsider's belated attempts to rescue the friendless Rita take us by surprise. And Rascón's thesis--that Rita is considered crazy because she's from another culture--loses some of its force late in the play when a damaging secret about her past is revealed. She wasn't operating too successfully in Tarahumara culture, either.

These failings are a pity because Rita's story is well worth telling. Rascón's rather pedestrian writing does rise up to a few poetic moments. Rita is transformed when she chants an ancient song and performs a ritual dance, and when she watches ducks and butterflies flying by her hospital window. And together the playwright and director, Barclay Goldsmith, do a yeoman job layering the bare institutional set with a quilt of mutually incomprehensible sounds. An American TV sitcom soundtrack serves, for instance, as a counterpoint to Huertas' anguished cries in her native tongue. Switching among tongues--from Tarahumara, to Spanish, to English--this play becomes a tapestry of sound. It's a clever touch that sometimes the audience, like Rita, is left lost in the babble. But sometimes the audience joins her in moving toward comprehension, and the three languages merge into one voice.

Borderlands Theater's production of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky/La Mujer Que Cayó del Cielo continues through Sunday, July 16, at the Pima Community College Black Box Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Shows are Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets are $12 and $13, with discounts for students. For more information call 882-7406.
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