The approach many playwrights take, when they write what you might call a “political play”, is to have characters stand around arguing the merits of this regime or that; whether it’s over scotch and cigars or truncheons and barricades, it’s a dry, intellectual exercise at heart. Rarely does a playwright give us a visual marker for an explosively emotional political situation that intrigues and disturbs us into wanting to know more and more.
In his fascinating one-act play “Atacama”, Augusto Federico Amador gives us a way in – increasing our understanding of the despotic and twisted Pinochet regime that stands as one of Chile’s greatest tragedies by telling the tale through the eyes of a mother painstakingly sifting sand in the Atacama desert for the shattered bones of her disappeared son Benjamin.The mother, Ignacia, played with luminous intensity by Broadway actress Socorro Santiago, has been one of many mothers on this dismal archeological dig. As she explains to Diego, newly arrived to search for his own loved one, there is a “trick to” finding what you’re searching for, and she seems to be the last one searching, all the others having given up or passed away. Diego’s wife, Marta, was a member of the latter category, and he has arrived at the Atacama to take up her effort to find the remains of their daughter Laura, one handful of sand at a time.
As the new searcher, Diego needs coaching, at least in Ignacia’s mind. But more than that, as the political discussion matures, it seems that Diego also needs his eyes opened to the despicable depths to which the torturous Pinochet regime took their country. Yes, Diego has lost a daughter, but he is also a capitalista, and the feminist, communist Ignacia will not let her teaching moments pass.
Played with a feckless sincerity at first, Jose Febus’ characterization of Diego is compelling, and full of dark surprises. In his interactions with Ignacia, Diego tries to pass himself off as a mundane owner of a car dealership, whose rebellious daughter never appreciated, perhaps even reviled, the privilege into which she was born. But as the bones large and small are subsequently found, and the conversation gets more and more revelatory, both Ignacia and Diego both completely belie the first impressions playwright Amador has given us of them.
The direction, by Estefania Fadul, allows the actors to explore, to pull apart, the situation in which these characters find themselves, letting the dialogue amuse and entertain without undercutting it with overwrought action or intrusive stagecraft.
Sadly, this was the one and only performance of Atacama programmed by the 2018 Downtown Urban Arts Festival, but if Atacama is indicative of the quality of the material being offered, I would say I’m very much looking forward to checking out more DUAF shows between now and May 12th. You can access their website for more information athttps://theatre80.wordpress.com/downtown-urban-arts-festival/