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Immigrant mom clashes with American daughter in Chance Theater’s dynamic 'Alma'

From left: Marta Portillo (Alma) and Heather Lee Echeverria (Angel) in "Alma" at Chance Theater (Photo by Doug Catiller)

In Benjamin Benne's “Alma” – a gem of a play extended at Chance Theater through May 31 – a mother who immigrated from Mexico 17 years before now fights her teenaged daughter over the girl taking the SAT the next day. Featuring a pair of brave actresses, the play is authentically detailed and meaningful in scope, rooted in the landscapes of both Southern California and the human heart.


Dynamically directed by Sara Guerrero, “Alma” is also a play that doesn’t shy away from mixing Spanish and English without always translating one to the other, and portraying cultural elements – such as beatings with chanclas, the ubiquity of rice and beans, or lighting religious candles, including one depicting former President Obama – with refreshing normalcy.

Marta Portillo (Alma) in "Alma" at Chance Theater (Photo by Doug Catiller)

On a winter 2016 evening, Alma (Marta Portillo) comes home from work to her La Puente apartment, changing into comfortable clothes (perfectly attuned costume design by Jeanette Goody), looking in vain for her daughter Angel (Heather Lee Echeverria) to help with last-minute study for the SAT before leaving the girl a phone message playfully tricking her into coming home. When Angel does, it’s with a bad attitude and beer on her breath.


The set is welcoming in its detail and intimacy, with a kitchenette, couch, small hallway to the bedroom and a bathroom door (designed by Christopher Scott Murillo). Lighting (by Kara Ramlow) features orange fairy lights glowing above the stage like stars, and the glimmer of an unseen television on the “fourth wall” that randomly switches on at times, sometimes with the scary (to Alma) voice of then President-elect Donald Trump.

Heather Lee Echeverria (Angel) in "Alma" at Chance Theater (Photo by Doug Catiller)

Mother and daughter prefer a show about elephants that they watch and talk about. Elephants – which we learn are matriarchal, caring and family-oriented – are a running trope through the play, as are flashcards for both the SAT and a naturalization test that feature vocabulary words and citizenship questions obliquely relevant to their situation, such as a word synonymous with “resilient” or “rich” and, from what continent were slaves imported?


In this way, the play weaves specific details of Alma and Angel’s lives with the larger sociopolitical histories of which they are a part. At one point, Alma tells Angel their La Puente apartment was built on land once inhabited by Mexicans before being pushed out by whites, and the Indigenous peoples she says were here before everyone else.

From left: Marta Portillo (Alma) in "Alma" at Chance Theater (Photo by Doug Catiller)

Along with this cultural perspective, we get a mother/daughter dynamic that is universal. Alma and Angel are fiercely protective of each the other in their own ways. When they clash, Alma’s chanclas may fly but the love behind her slippers is palpable. Director Guerrero lets us dwell in these emotions rather than rush through them, especially after a revealing moment when Alma’s spirit literally seems to break.


And the actresses convey those feelings deftly, inhabiting their strong, likeable characters uninhibitedly. Alma is more dramatic in speech and gesture while the younger Angel is equally intense in her convictions and believable in how she reacts to her mom. But the two also get cozy and cuddle on the couch, reciting a list of deseos (desires or wishes) they have cultivated since Angel was a child, along with amendments.

From left: Marta Portillo (Alma) and Heather Lee Echeverria (Angel) in "Alma" at Chance Theater (Photo by Doug Catiller)

The list begins with salud (health), but goes on to include money, love, a home in Hacienda Heights, and that Angel should become a doctor, amended in fifth grade to be “animal doctor” as a compromise. Now Angel has specific ideas on why she doesn’t want to go away to UC Davis for college but stay closer to home and attend Mt. SAC, a community college – hence no need to take the SAT.


Why each woman wants what they do is explored and debated within the fraught frame of their relationship, each wearing her heart on her sleeve.

From left: Heather Lee Echeverria (Angel) and Marta Portillo (Alma) in "Alma" at Chance Theater (Photo by Doug Catiller)

Along the way, we enjoy their banter, their warmth and the drama of their generational differences, such as when Angel draws a line in front of her bedroom door and says her mom – who sleeps on the couch – can’t cross it. And yet the mom cleans up the bathroom when Angel throws up Hot Cheetos, her only meal of the day since she didn’t take Alma’s rice and beans for lunch.


“Alma” is the mom’s name but also means soul, and “angel” is the same in both languages. This is a play that goes emotionally deep but also soars on hopeful wings, thanks to excellent staging and two actresses that immerse themselves wholly in their roles. Not to be missed!


“Alma” continues at Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, through May 31, with shows Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. For tickets and information, call (888) 455-4212 or visit Run time is 1 hour and 15 minutes with no intermission.

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