Institutional Errors

Borderlands Theater presents an encore of the powerful 'Woman Who Fell From the Sky'

In 1982, a woman, bundled in several layers of odd clothing, is caught Dumpster diving in Kansas City. When the cops get her to say anything at all, it's some incomprehensible babble. Maybe she's Mexican; maybe she's Korean. But all that really matters at the moment is that she's obviously just one more homeless lunatic wandering the streets. After all, this is about the same time that Ronald Reagan has thrown open all the asylum doors and relocated America's mentally ill to the gutters. This woman ought to be put back where she came from.

Except--as officials learn only after this woman has been institutionalized for a dozen years--she didn't come from some asylum. She's a Tarahumara woman from the mountains of northern Chihuahua. She doesn't babble; she simply speaks her native tongue, the Rarámuri language, and no other.

This woman, who was not released until 1994, is the real-life subject of Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda's trilingual play The Woman Who Fell From the Sky/La Mujer Que Cáyo del Cielo. Tucson's Borderlands Theater first presented the play five years ago, and has now revived it with its original star, the phenomenal Mexican actress Luisa Huertas. As before, Barclay Goldsmith directs.

Running for 90 minutes without a break, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky still suffers from a few dry stretches, and offers only the sketchiest characterizations of the three people with the greatest impact on this woman's life, two doctors who drug the humanity out of her and the man who accidentally comes to save her.

Instead, Rascón Banda does everything he can to flesh out the central cipher, whom we come to know as Rita. It's a remarkably physical role, but Huertas has all the stamina, focus and creativity it takes to bring it off. Early on, she has moments of brooding stillness; gradually, the antipsychotic drugs the doctors prescribe lead to some alarming physical side effects, which Huertas locks onto with excruciating precision. About midway through the play, though, comes a five-minute sequence in which she essentially mimes the course of her former life, from childhood through motherhood and the loss of her children, to what seems to be a joyful Rarámuri song. Huertas captures it all as, through the rest of the play, she makes herself look increasingly haggard without the benefit of makeup.

Because Rita, in pidgin Spanish, gives the doctors more than one last name, she is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Because she cannot speak a language the doctors can identify, she is assumed to be retarded. Because her natural preoccupation with her culture's rituals and ways of understanding the world seem like obsessive fantasies, Rita must lose her clothing and few possessions and undergo "socialization" in a language she cannot understand.

In one comically exasperating scene, a well-meaning but condescending doctor (played by Richard Ragsdale) tries to teach Rita a bit of English. But, to make it comprehensible, he stretches out simple words beyond comprehension; "me" and "you" and "Monday" become nothing more than oozing streams of phonemes. Rita can mimic the sounds (and the doctor's unconscious accompanying hand gestures), but she has no idea what she's saying. The doctors choose to believe they're making progress.

The play itself progresses in English, Spanish and a little Rarámuri. The latter remains impenetrable to most of us, but most of the Spanish gets translated one way or another into English. Rita has several monologues in Spanish, which, after their completion, are recounted to us in English by Suzanne Darrell, identified in the cast list as Translator. It would have been truer to life to have spoken these passages in Rarámuri, but that's surely asking too much of Huertas. She delivers her first monologues eloquently, with the measured pace and precise diction of a classical actor; gradually, as the physical tics take over, Huertas surrenders the monologues somewhat to her body, to heartbreaking effect.

As for the rest of the cast, Ari Brickman does well as the stranger who ultimately is instrumental in getting Rita released, although Brickman is hobbled by Rascón Banda's failure to provide the character any real emotional involvement, until the very end. As the doctors, Ragsdale and Eva Zorrilla Tessler seem perfunctory early on, but settle into their roles by the play's midpoint. Darrell is good as the translator, but her moments are necessarily anticlimactic coming right after Huertas' carefully modulated monologues.

Be warned that this is not a happily-ever-after story, and the very last moment is devastating. How could it be otherwise? Rita's people believe that women have four souls, and as with her layers of skirts, the medication and institutionalization have stripped away Rita's souls, one by one.

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