"Living Large in a Mini Kind of Way": An immigration tale for our times

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By Doug Deuchler

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It starts out as a jolly ethnic sitcom. Living Large in a Mini Kind of Way at 16th Street Theater opens with lots of one-liners that spring from assorted zany family squabbles. But it's quickly obvious that this is more than just some Latino laugh fest. It's deeper, richer, more focused and incisive.

A strong cast presents an immigration parable that illustrates the gap that can exist between newly arrived Mexicans and those who are longer established. Ann Filmer directs this nicely paced, thought-provoking tale of sibling rivalry and cultural assimilation. The solid production presents a realistic spin on some complicated issues yet never grows preachy or heavy-handed. There is lots of warmth and humor.

For me a play is successful if the characters stay with me for a while. I found myself thinking about these people all week.

I met the Los Angeles-based Latina playwright, Diane Rodriguez, right after the performance. She told me her plot and characters are based on several actual situations plucked from her own extended family. Rodriguez was born in the U.S. in a farm-working family, grew up bilingual, and has both acted and directed in addition to writing for the theater. She herself directed a previous production of Living Large at the Teatro Luna, Chicago's all Latina theater.

The play features two pairs of grown sisters whose lives intersect. Lily, played by Rose Guccione, is a strong-willed recent widow with no children, who lives alone in a nice home. She misses her deceased hubby terribly.

Lily has a married sister named Nellie (Marilyn Camacho) who dresses "too young." She wears stuff like hot pink fishnet stockings with too short skirts. Nellie's husband, Sammy (Madrid St. Angelo), is a well-intentioned but bossy Cuban musician. This outspoken couple seem to have Lily's best interests in mind yet they constantly badger her about how to run her life now that she's alone. To Lily they are annoying and share few of her key values. She does not want to lean on her sister and brother-in-law.

St. Angelo, the only male in the production, plays dual roles. He also portrays Lilly's beloved late husband in several brief, dimly lit transitional scenes.

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The second set of sisters are inexplicably both named Maria. Big Maria (Miranda Gonzalez) and Little Maria (Amanda de la Guardia), recent immigrants, both work for Lily. They do her housework, run her errands, and care for her unseen aged mother. The Marias are Lily's employees, yet she thinks of them as family. So they play her game. They do homework in grammar workbooks she provides, attempting to improve their English communication skills, and they allow Lily to give them lessons on manners and social conventions she feels are vital. She stages backyard tea parties and serves them finger sandwiches. Lily means well, thinking she is providing the sisters with vital tools that will help them gain access to the elusive American Dream.

She talks a good game, claiming she's resourceful and independent, but in reality Lily is actually drowning in mounting debt. She is clueless and in denial, ignoring heaps of bills her husband left behind. Instead she focuses on keeping up appearances. She is proud that Spanish is her second language, but she's even prouder of her lovely home and the fact that she's running for president of her Neighborhood Association.

Are the Marias and Lily helping or using one another? Lily sees herself as a benevolent social worker, a virtual missionary who has been there/done that, so she can now help Big Maria and Little Maria get situated in their new environment. She wants them to move in with her and is eager to help them get grounded. But although she's strong-willed, Lily's also vulnerable and lonely.

We are provided with a clear window into the world of Mexican immigrants, so often thought of as a monolithic group. Some of the characters have heavy accents. There are conflicts relative to their adjustment and acculturation process. The Marias work as many jobs as possible, sending money home to family. Yet these newcomers are in a dangerous, precarious position since they are undocumented workers. All the characters are struggling in various ways, coping with what is at times a blurry cultural identity because they are straddling two very different worlds.

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Lily's sister and brother-in-law think the sisters will steal from her and abuse her generosity. Sammy says, "You don't ask people like that to move in. … They're the help." But Lily dismisses his concern: "They can benefit from my tutelage."

The sisters have conflicts and sibling rivalry. Big Maria thinks Little Maria simply needs a man to solve her problems. "Go to Home Depot," she advises. "There are plenty of single guys there."

There are occasional bits of Spanish in the dialogue, but it's not difficult to get the gist of what is being said.

Jessica Keuhnau Wardell designed the tidy set: the rear of Lily's home, her suburban backyard, side hedges and storage shed. Mallory Bass is the stage manager.

Living Large in a Mini Kind of Way is an exciting comedy that focuses on some serious contemporary issues. The 16th Street Theater production features vivid performances. It's enjoyable and penetrating.

Doug Deuchler is a longtime educator and historian who, when he isn't reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent, film class instructor and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.

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