Steppenwolf's 'La Ruta' examines pandemic of missing/murdered women in Mexico
"La Ruta" - ★ ★ ★ ½
"Her memory follows me everywhere, and I don't know what to do with it."
Grieving mother Marisela's lament comes about two-thirds of the way through "La Ruta," Isaac Gomez's raw, emotionally wrenching tragedy about thousands of young women and girls who have gone missing and/or been murdered since the mid-1990s in and around Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, ranked among the world's most dangerous cities.
By the time Marisela utters the line in Steppenwolf Theatre's unflinching, passionately acted premiere, we're keenly aware of unchecked femicide rooted in domestic abuse, poverty, human trafficking and organized crime and propelled by disdain and disregard for women. The victims -- mostly poor workers at American and other foreign-owned factories built near Juarez in the wake of 1994's North American Free Trade Agreement -- are known as Las Desaparecidas and Las Muertas, the missing girls and dead women of Juárez.
Often abducted on their way to or from work along public bus routes, the victims were tortured and raped and their mutilated remains dumped in the Mexican desert where pink crosses stand as their memorial.
We experience this scourge -- which police and government officials fail to address -- through the eyes of the mothers and an older sister of three teenage victims.
The play opens at a bus stop, where brick walls are plastered with fliers of missing girls. Marisela (a quietly moving Charin Alvarez), whose 16-year-old daughter Rubi has recently gone missing, waits with best friend Yolanda (a towering, visceral performance by Sandra Delgado) for Yolanda's daughter Brenda. Against her mother's wishes, Brenda (the winsome, entirely convincing Cher Álvarez) quit high school to work the late shift at a jeans factory. When she doesn't arrive, Yolanda becomes apprehensive. That apprehension turns to terror (a transition the expressive Delgado poignantly conveys) as Yolanda realizes her daughter has disappeared.
Gomez alternates scenes from before and after Brenda's disappearance. We relive her first day of work, as pretty, sharp-tongued, veteran Ivonne (complex, commanding work by Karen Rodriguez) takes the newcomer under her wing. We see Brenda -- resentful of her protective mother -- enticed by the freewheeling Ivonne, who knows more about missing girls than she cares to admit.
But we also watch the aftermath of Brenda's disappearance as the stress of their missing daughters strains Marisela and Yolanda's friendship. And we see Marisela, in honor of her murdered daughter, take on the role of activist, demanding justice for the victims.
Though some names have been changed in his "creative re-imagining" of the pandemic, Gomez says in a program interview that "everything in the play is real."
"There's no fiction in any of the major dramatic events of the play," he says, "or the essence of who these characters are."
Thus, Gomez portrays unimaginable suffering and profound courage in aching detail. (The scene in which Mari Marroquin's nervous Zaide asks a bus driver to drop her and her co-workers closer to their homes so they can more easily navigate gang-infested neighborhoods is a brief but potent example.)
Gomez also incorporates gentle humor and spot-on scenes that reflect a keen awareness of how teenage girls behave. All of this unfolds to original music and Mexican pop and folk tunes, played by troubadour Desamaya (Laura Crotte). She's frequently accompanied by the cast, all of whom sing as well as they act.
Unrelenting tension animates the haunting, harrowing "La Ruta," which crescendos from a quiet whimper to an anguished cri de coeur. It's difficult to watch. Sandra Marquez's well-informed direction and her accomplished cast, however, make it impossible to look away.
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Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Jan. 27. Also 2 p.m. Jan. 9, 16 and 23. No 7:30 p.m. show Dec. 23 and Jan. 13, 20 and 27. No shows Dec. 25 or Jan. 1.
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: $12-$14 in the lot adjacent to the theater; limited street parking
Rating: For adults; contains mature themes, language and references to violence including sexual violence