|Naiya Amilcar, Laila Mottaghi, and Eleanor Amorós|
By Tina Arth
When playwright Lisa Loomer’s Living Out debuted in Los Angeles 15 years ago, its themes of class distinction, economic inequality, racism, and illegal immigration were all relevant – but the importance of these topics has ballooned since (what now seem like) the “good old days” of George W. Bush. Mask & Mirror’s choice to produce this play is inspired, and director Linda Talluto and assistant director Jayne Furlong have done a fine job of bringing the show to local audiences.
The title Living Out refers to the status of nannies “living out” as opposed to living full-time with the families whose children are placed in their care. The Los Angeles setting lends itself well to the basic set-up: wealthy white families hiring Hispanic immigrants, most of them undocumented, to provide child care and other household services for their families while the mothers either work at high-powered jobs or exhaust themselves with a nonstop regimen of tennis, shopping, luncheons, charity functions, and yoga. Loomer creates a memorable tale that combines fast-paced, sitcom style humor with genuine pathos and a hefty dose of social commentary. Salvadoran immigrant Ana Hernandez needs work – her husband Bobby’s construction work is sporadic, the pay too low to support a wife and son plus Ana’s other son who lives with his grandmother in El Salvador. Ana is determined to bring her older boy to the U.S. but until she and Bobby achieve legal status this just a dream. After two unsuccessful interviews, Ana realizes that employers don’t want to hire a woman with children of their own – she is hired by lawyer/new mom Nancy Robin by pretending that both of her sons are in El Salvador. Naturally, things go very wrong, and not in a comfortably wacky I Love Lucy way.
Eleanor Amorós makes an extraordinary theatrical debut in the role of Ana Hernandez – had I not been told that this was her first time on stage I would have looked for an extensive resume. She has mastered the art of timing and delivery, so her emotional, resolute, and humorous moments all ring 100% true. It is clear that her character’s strength is drawn in part from a quiet desperation that draws the audience in as her allies from the opening scene. Amorós is well matched with David Cabassa as her husband Bobby. The Puerto Rico born actor dances on the edge of a stereotypical machismo but holds back at all the right moments. The character he creates is straddling two worlds, trying to maintain a sense of primacy within the relationship yet able to cede some power to his woman without bitterness or violence. As Nancy Robin, Yelena King walks a similarly fine line, shifting smoothly from the very real anxiety of the new mom to the drive to avoid the “mommy track” in her law firm – we may not always like her (the nanny cam is over the line!) but we can relate to her struggle – she is seriously trying to do the right thing. As Nancy’s husband, a card-carrying Santa Monica liberal lawyer, Jordan Fugitt is appropriately clueless yet eager to relate to his disadvantaged nanny. Just as Cabassa subtly alarms the audience with the prospect of domestic violence, Fugitt sends out nascent vibes of sexual harassment – and like Cabassa, Fugitt reels it back in – reminding us (and Nancy) that an employer and an employee should be able to share an amicable moment with raising the specter of Harvey Weinstein.
A lot of the play’s ironic humor comes from the rapid shifts between four terrific supporting women, moms Lydia Ellis-Curry and Aurea Taylor and nannies Naiya Amilcar and Laila Mottaghi. The sarcasm, simmering hostility, and casual racism of the nannies creates a perfect counterpoint to the even more racist, entitled, pampered moms who cherish, but cannot be bothered to raise, their offspring. Taylor gives her character enough warmth that we are only slightly surprised that in the final crisis she actually considers the welfare of Ana’s child – Ellis-Curry’s character is supremely oblivious to such niceties.
Both lighting and set are key to staging this show, as its many brief scenes need to be separated by little more than a blackout. Jayne Furlong’s set uses the same basic living room/dining room/kitchen for all scenes – changes in lighting tell us when we are in upscale Santa Monica and when we are in Huntington Park, just 20 miles (but depending on traffic, sometimes a critical 2 hours) away in Ana and Bobby’s home. One suggestion would be to find a way to utilize the audience level area just below the stage as an apron for the park scenes, eliminating the need for all scene changes.
Living Out has a currency that demands reflection and conversation – I would have loved to participate in an audience-talk back with the actors. It may not show up again on local stages for quite awhile, so by all means see it now and take the time to read Talluto’s Director’s Notes!
Mask & Mirror’s Living Out runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through May 20th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.