In their work, Chicago's Goodman Theatre doesn't aim small. Recent productions like Teddy Ferrara and The Happiest Song Plays Last have tackled issues of LGBT suicide, poverty, racism, immigration and intergenerational debts, as we work to cleanse the sins of both the past and the present. Happiest Song, currently showing in the Goodman's Owen Theatre, is the third in Quiaria Alegria Hudes much-lauded Elliot trilogy. The last installment won the Pulitzer Prize.
Hudes follows an Iraqi veteran as he leaves the service to readjust to life after wartime, and Happiest Song picks up when Elliot (Armando Riesco) gets a job portraying a soldier in a film about the war. Elliot falls in love with his co-star (Fawzia Mirza), an actress struggling with her own multi-national heritage, and befriends the film's Iraqi expert, who left Iraq to escape the country's history of violence. Elliot discovers the two of them have in more in common than he might have thought.
However, the play manages to also deal with the Mubarak resignation and Middle East unrest, while shoehorning in U.S immigration and our failing infrastructure. Elliot's cousin, Yaz, moves back to her native Philadelphia to rediscover her Puerto Rican roots. Yaz's great aunt has recently passed, and she returns home to fix up her house, while also acting as a caretaker for the area's homeless population and a part-time community organizer.
While there, she takes up with a much-older, married neighbor (Jaime Tirelli), who gets her pregnant and then promptly dies in a hospital, after being refused service. Joaquin had health insurance but died in the emergency room, awaiting care. Yaz explains that it's one of a number of preventable deaths that have occurred in the Philadelphia area, an indictment of how the United States treats its citizens. She organizes a protest, only to have 11 people attend. The lessons of his death fall on deaf ears.
Does that sound like a lot? My description covers the half of it. Parts of the show played like a three-ring circus of plots, themes and characters, trying to be about so much that it struggled to be about anything at all. Hudes is hardly the first playwright to bite off more than she can chew, and the third act falls apart in its final minutes, as she fails to tie together the disparate strands of its narrative. The last scene feels like Grand Central Station as every character and theme re-enters the story to bid us a final farewell -- complete with a double pregnancy.
It's the Godfather Part III problem. How do you close out two masterpieces? For the most part, you just try not to screw anything up. Aside from that heavy-handed finale, Happiest Song mostly succeeds.
How?, you might ask. I hated Godfather Part III. My, this must be dreadful!
Far from it. What the story lacks in coherence it makes up in its scene-to-scene power, and in the moment, it's like lit dynamite. A seamless dramatist, Hudes proves herself a master of dialogue, character, particularly in the understated scenes between Elliot and Mirza's Shar, who is a quarter-Egyptian but professes that she feels like she has no identity. When Elliot protests this assertion, Shar pushes back, "I have just as much right to be nothing as anyone else." It's a theme the Jewish Puerto Rican playwright knows well.
Shar's story is filled with these quiet moments of revelation, and in them, you can see why Mirza (who was also in Teddy Ferrara) has become a Goodman favorite. She's nothing short of amazing.
Riesco has played Elliot in each of the trilogy's premieres and by now, he has the character down to an exact science. When I discovered Riesco played one of Zach Braff's Jersey buddies in Garden State, it was physically difficult to connect to the character I saw onstage. It's like he's two different people. In following Elliot through three plays, Riesco and Hudes give you the unique feeling that you've accidentally stumbled into this person's life; you feel less like a theatregoer and more like a voyeur.
The mostly Chicago-based cast is uniformly excellent, and director Edward Torres shows he knows how to get performances out of actors that feel real and true. Had the program informed me that they cast Lefty off the street, I would have believed them. Torres's and his crew's choices were clever and inspired, from using the facade of a dilapidated building as the set to the reliance on music as transition. Grammy-award winning tres player Nelson González walks the stage during scene changes, as a testament to how songs speak to our shared histories. They act as an oral tradition set to music.
In the play's final scene, Elliot sits with an instrument in his lap, trying to find the music of his youth and of his Latino culture. At a time when we are trying to move forward and rebuild a society decimated by conflicts at home and abroad, Hudes shows that some of our answers can be found in the past. Our roots don't just give us the nourishment to grow. They ground us and hold us. They show us where home is waiting.
In composing work this breathtakingly ambitious, Hudes can be forgiven for not getting all the notes right. Her song needs and deserves to be heard.