Critic's PickWartime tortures its victims long beyond the battlefields and combat. Especially when a war tears apart the population of a single nation, the scars run deep, last long and profoundly change lives. That’s the circumstance of the characters in Martín Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun, receiving its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse this month.
The play opens with a prologue as the residents of a Central American town named San Ysidro gather to listen to a radio, sounds absent from their lives during months of warfare. Snatches of music raise their spirits, but their celebration is silenced by an announcement from the capital declaring that acts of political violence have been pardoned. Moisés (Gerardo Rodriguez), a taciturn physician, picks up a hammer and smashes the radio to bits. In subsequent scenes (the production is 90 minutes, without intermission) we learn the backstory regarding his ire and the irreconcilable differences that result from partisan conflict between people of the same nation.
We meet Mónica (Gabi Mayorga) and Luis (Arturo Soria), a young couple in Ojona who dream of the future. A mineworker, he has enlisted in the army in hopes improving their status. She fears this decision, but he is confident it will mean good things. We move to San Ysidro, where Moisés surprises his wife Belén (Ana Grosse) with a stolen pineapple, a reminder of their courtship. But outside their tiny clinic a wounded resistance fighter has been left to die in the town square.
They yearn to help, but Eugenio (Luis Moreno), an alcoholic priest, is paralyzed with fear and retreats behind his church doors.
Time passes and the war ends, but a strange plague is afflicting the children of San Ysidro. Moisés, embittered by the murder of his wife, has not reopened his clinic. When Eugenio begs him to do so, it becomes clear he has unanticipated healing powers. The fates of the doctor and young soldier become painfully entangled, driving the balance of Seven Spots, during which miraculous events — signaled by sunspots — transpire. This morality tale is a kind of fable, but the outcome is not forgiveness. An unhappy balance of grief and shame is achieved, painful memories are preserved and lives are forever changed. It’s not a cheerful or even satisfying outcome, as is appropriate for a tale of dark tragedy.
The production, directed by new Playhouse associate artist KJ Sanchez with Wilson Chin’s scenic design, uses every square inch of the cramped Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre. Pieces of corrugated metal, weather-beaten cardboard and broken window frames with candles are on every wall and the visible backstage. A few meager Christmas lights hang on the walls and overhead, and wooden doors with white-painted handprints play an ominous role. From each wall — right, left, behind and forward — a gigantic pair of eyes stare out at the action, witnessing the joy and grief, the inhumanity and the hope that permeates these lives. Three actors (Sean Carvajal, Zuleyma Guevara and Jamie Rezanour) create “The Town,” the citizens of the villages. They spend much of the evening in the aisles, close to audience members, drawing us into the emotion wake of these sad stories.
Rodriguez’s portrait of the doctor whose love has been cruelly stolen from him is understated and contained; Soria, as the naïve soldier who commits atrocities, evolves from a romantic husband to an empty shell. Mayorga and Grosse portray passionate spouses, and Mayorga adds emotional depth and complexity as Monica, who must mature from an innocent young woman to an impassioned mother fighting for her child’s life. She does so convincingly.
With lighting design by Robert J. Aguilar and sound and music by Zach Williamson and Marcus Milius, Seven Spots on the Sun immerses you in the story in subtle yet powerful ways. Pineapples play a powerful role, and when Moisés tries to recall Belén’s soul by chopping open the ripe fruits, their sweet smell permeates the theater, making his grief all the more tangible.
It’s not easy to say one likes a play like this, but I can certainly say that I was moved and reminded that while men and women have the power to love and care for one another, that power cuts just as easily in other more painful ways. Martín Zimmerman is a promising young writer, one whose works — including this one — will surely be seen on more and more stages across America. We should be grateful that the Playhouse has given us an early taste of his work.
SEVEN SPOTS ON THE SUN, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in the Thompson Shelterhouse, continues through Oct. 27.