Raising Questions

Borderlands' latest production discusses issues of motherhood and immigration through a compelling story

Lisa Loomer's Living Out is the best kind of issues play. Instead of making you feel like you're attending a political rally or enduring a church service, it makes you a witness to a compelling, small story with big implications.

Borderlands Theater rarely makes a misstep in its choice of scripts or the quality of its productions, and Living Out is another success for the company. If only success could come so easily to the play's characters.

"Living out" is the preferred position for a nanny in America; instead of "living in," taking care of somebody else's kids 24 hours a day, she can go home to her own life and her own children. Or at least she can in theory. Ana Hernandez and her husband, Bobby, fled the war in El Salvador and settled in Los Angeles; they brought one of their children with them, but left the other behind in the care of Ana's grandmother. They're trying to get "legal," but complications lurk in Bobby's file, and the process is long. Bobby takes construction jobs when they're available, but to make ends meet and save enough money to bring their other child to America once they can do so legally, Ana has to work. She's no village innocent; she was trained in dentistry back home, but in L.A., one of the few tolerable jobs available to her is that of nanny.

She's good at it, but in order to get a job, she has to tell prospective employers that both her boys are still in Central America. After all, if she has her own children to worry about, how can she devote sufficient time and energy to the kids she's paid to keep?

Ana lands a position in the home of Nancy and Richard Robin. Nancy is an entertainment attorney who's just had her first child fairly late in life, much to the annoyance of her childless boss. Richard is a lawyer, too, but an idealistic, underpaid public defender. In short, they're way too busy to tend to their own child.

So Living Out is about children left behind, whether by immigrant workers or by well-off WASPs. It's a wonderfully even-handed play in every respect. Ana and her fellow hard-working Latinas aren't flawless heroines, and Nancy and her fellow overwrought yuppie moms aren't evil incarnate (although Nancy's two park friends are intensely annoying). And while women stand at the center of this story, Loomer draws their husbands sympathetically but unsentimentally. Each squabbles with his wife, but squabbles out of love. Bobby is proud and macho, unhappy that Ana can't stay home and take care of their own son, but grudgingly willing to accommodate her work until he can get a green card and support the family on his own. Richard is a well-meaning, good-natured doofus who feels a little guilty that his baby doesn't have a parent at home, but he refuses to increase his income by joining a sleazy big law firm so Nancy can afford to take care of the kid. Besides, Nancy likes her work. Imagine that.

Loomer emphasizes the parallels between the two married couples, and between Ana's little group of nannies and Nancy's little group of moms, who periodically commiserate on a park bench. The dialog is sharp and the characterizations compassionate, as Loomer explores the dozen moral dilemmas and petty deceits necessary in the daily lives of undocumented nannies.

Late in the play, Loomer has the Robins, good liberals that they are, acknowledge that nannies like Ana are in a mess that can be traced ultimately to American foreign policy and immigration laws. But what happens on stage comes down to difficult personal decisions made by nannies and mommies, not governments. Ana is none too happy with her situation; the child she left behind years ago but talks with every week on the phone doesn't even recognize her in photographs, and resists the notion of leaving Salvador and the woman who has raised him. Yet she feels she and her husband had no choice but to leave their chaotic homeland.

For most of this rather long but involving work, Loomer and director Eva Tessler play up the gentle humor of the characters, while sneaking little peeks at the pathos that will dominate the story's closing scenes. The cast handles this balance marvelously. The ensemble is anchored by two very smart and sensitive actresses, Marissa Garcia as Ana and Julia Matias as Nancy; each has the full measure of her character's complexity. Byron Quiros is exactly what Bobby needs to be--strong, frustrated and ultimately sensitive. Dwayne Palmer handles the nice-guy role of Richard with finesse, making him much more than milquetoast.

The supporting actresses are particularly colorful: Christina Walker Rowden and Alida Gunn as the brittle yuppie moms, and Roseanne Couston and Anel Schmidt as their beleaguered nannies (Schmidt has an especially powerful, bitter monolog near the end). John Longhofer has designed a versatile set in which every element serves double or triple duty without causing the least confusion.

What Living Out does not provide is a set of easy answers to the questions it raises. Instead, it knowingly details the kinships and chasms between disparate people who essentially share the same American dream.

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