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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Esperanza Rising: Hard labor
Life in a migrant camp
A privileged girl moves down in the world.
A privileged girl moves down in the world.
Credit:Jamie Young

Esperanza Rising, presented by Children's Theater of Madison, is the story of a privileged Mexican girl who lives on her family's ranch. When bandits kill her father, she and her mother are left destitute. Next, fire destroys their house, and Esperanza's mother is forced to send her daughter with their former servants to a migrant labor camp in California. Through these experiences, Esperanza learns, as director Roseann Sheridan puts it, how to live up to the meaning of her name - "hope."

Esperanza Rising is based on Pam Muñoz Ryan's novel, and I applaud CTM's efforts to present socially relevant theater for children. But this play left me questioning what that means. It deals in seriously heavy subjects - death of a parent, loss of home, abandonment, inequality. In book form, young readers can linger over such complexities, but on stage they come thick and fast. And Sheridan doesn't connect scenes that could help reconcile the theme of Esperanza's personal growth with the profoundly tragic events that trigger it. Linking, for instance, Esperanza's lavish birthday party dance and the festival dance at the migrant camp could work as visual metaphor for her journey from a self- to a community-centered life. Absent such directorial strokes, the play's complicated issues pile up, seemingly skimmed over.

The story is set in the 1930s, but this production forgets about history, treating the themes as timeless. In light of current immigration debates, it's troubling that the play presents America's ugly creation of a migrant underclass, then tries to resolve the mess with the vague solution of "hope." The message teeters on the edge of Disney cliché - Esperanza's hardships make her a better person in the end, and love overcomes all obstacles. Doesn't that sound like the vision of migrant labor that the corporate world would hope we'd take?

Despite the play's problems, the young actors perform with the maturity and skills I've come to expect at CTM. As Esperanza, Fiorella Fernandez handles her role with strength and consistency. And Lily Perkel performs with convincing verve as Isabel.

If you go to Esperanza Rising, enjoy the passionate performances, but consider reading the book and taking advantage of the study guide on the CTM website ahead of time to add some context to this challenging subject.

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