Rudolfo Anaya's coming-of-age 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima is considered a classic and is featured on many college-bound reading lists. I confess that I tried listening to the audiobook version of the novel last summer and couldn't get into it, but the author's relatively new (2009) stage adaptation, and the Phoenix Theatre's rich production of it, directed by Bryan Fonseca, brought the story to life for me last weekend.
Scot Greenwell plays the Author, an adult named Antonio who is trying to write about growing up in New Mexico just after World War Two. He witnessed several violent deaths as a young boy and says at one point, "Mine was a haunted childhood."
What saved him was a "grande," a great-aunt, named Ultima (Elisa Creekmur), that came to stay with his family. As adult Tony taps at his manual typewriter up in a loft, we move into present-tense memories on the main part of the stage.
Ultima is a curandera, a mystical healer. Some people are afraid of her power, which causes problems, but through her gentle love and guidance, young Tony (Gabriel Chambers) begins to find his way through conflicting messages from church, family, and friends.
All three of these actors and the ensemble that supports them are excellent.
Ultima helps Tony cross boundaries even between life and death, and elements of stagecraft enhance that sometimes unsettling exploration. At the back of Jeffrey Martin's set design, for example, people seem to be pushing or swimming through a stone wall. Ashely Kiefer's costume design includes masks that reveal as much as they cover. Video elements by Zach Rosing and Ben Dobler are creepy yet spiritual. Harvest music and dancing by Tim Brickley, Rudolfo Anaya and Mariel Greenlee are earthy yet joyful.
The characters speak a mixture of Spanish and English (June 7 and 8 performances will be entirely in Spanish). I didn't understand all of the Spanish, but that didn't seem to matter. The mix added another layer of mystery and lyricism without getting in the way of comprehension.
I'm sure there are cultural references that went over my head as well because I caught some of them. At one point, for example, young Tony hears a noise and asks Ultima, "Is that La Llorona?" She smiles and says "No, that's just the wind" or something without saying anything else. It's just assumed that the audience knows the story of the woman crying for her dead children. But again, not getting every cultural reference doesn't get in the way of enjoying the show as a whole.
For me there were many resonances that weren't directly related to its being based on the best selling Chicano novel of all time. Elisa Creekmur gives Ultima a warmth, strength, and complexity that I aspire to as a child-free aunt and godmother myself. Scot Greenwell nails the struggle, gratitude, and healing aspects of being a writer. And I appreciate the many questions the play asks, such as: Who qualifies as a confessor? What's the difference between a plan and a dream? How do you accept and honor all parts of yourself?