QUEENS at La Jolla Playhouse looks at the price of the American dream

QUEENS, playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 29th is a timely and unflinching look at the often unseen side of the immigrant story.  It focuses on the lives of a handful of women trying to make their way in a secret basement dwelling in the borough of Queens, New York

Cast of QUEENS – photo by Jim Carmody

Told in a non-linear fashion, but both hinge on the appearance of a newcomer to the building looking for a place to stay.  The play opens with Renia (Brenda Meany) coming back to the building and being confronted by a young girl Inna (Rae Gray).  Inna is looking for her mother, or even information about her, and was directed to this building as a safe place for immigrants to find some shelter.  Renia lets her in, and explains that this location has been in use for many years prior to her arrival, and most likely after, as a safe harbor for immigrant women to stay, find jobs, and  finds that Inna’s questions and attitudes remind her of when she first arrived looking for a place to stay.

Renia is a Polish immigrant arriving just after 9/11 and is greeted by Isabella (Xochitl Romero), from Honduras, Pelagiya (Leslie Fray) from Belarus, and Aamani (Jolly Abraham) from Afghanistan. Pelagiya insists that Reina provide not only the rent in advance, but also her story.

“We don’t gonna say yes to someone what we don’t know her story.  These days you don’t know who people could be,” she explains to Renia.  After all, anyone who stays there has the potential to bring unwanted attention to them all.

As their characters stories unfold, their struggles, and their goals, it is clear though these women have lived together they are not necessarily friends.  It is survival of the fittest, and they cannot afford to let down their guard or spend an extra penny. For Isabella, every dollar earned, or item she has bought while there is a visible reminder of time away from her daughter, or money she could have sent to help her family.

Back in the present with Reina and Inna, the rules have not changed much in the house, but the leader has.  Reina has now moved into the position of longest there, and as she extends a helping hand to Inna a character from the recent past comes back to show just how much has changed for those newcomers to the building, and how much coming to America has changed them as well.

Though small parts of the dialogue are said in other languages, English is the common language of all of the characters. Written by Martyna Majok, the dialogue beautifully showcases each person’s grasp of the language grammar and pronunciation.  Directed by Carey Perloff, these women are multi-faceted, driven, and don’t succumb to stereotypes to tell the story.

A tremendous Meany leads this strong cast with her driven and designing Reina.  Romero is excellent as Isabella and Glenys, while Abraham is heartbreaking as Aamani, Fray is both a severe and sensitive as Pelagiya, and Gray is a feisty survivor as Inna.

The set by David Israel Reynoso is a clever multi roomed basement, with studs instead of walls and a staircase that leads to the apartment building where the “real” tenants live.  These tenants live in comfort, and don’t want to know about the people or the conditions living directly below them.

QUEENS explores the idea of identity and survival; and if you would even recognize yourself by the time you reach your goal.  Everyone has come to the US with a different dream, some work to get money and go home, some want to their bring family here, others want forget it all and to start over.  It is the dream of America that beckons, but it is the reality that reveals  the hard truths that make up each dreamer.

QUEENS is playing through July 29th. For ticket and show time information go to www.lajollaplayouse.org

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