The cast of ‘La Ruta’ at Steppenwolf Theater Company. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
The venerable Steppenwolf Theatre, a Chicago institution and launch pad for creatives since 1974, has remained relevant for nearly 45 years by taking risks. The house that Gary Sinise built (among others) continually invests in new material, talented writers, producers and directors, to say nothing of its diverse, gifted roster of acting ensemble members. It is this commitment to evolving with, rather than attempting to dictate American culture, which sustains Steppenwolf’s agility and almost uncanny sense of zeitgeist.
With the world premiere production of La Ruta, written by Chicago playwright Isaac Gomez, the theater company burnishes its progressive reputation with another bold, beautiful and timely piece of art. A late 2018 look at the recent, intersectional history of North American trade, gender dynamics, gang warfare, and their collective impact on personal freedoms, director and ensemble member Sandra Marquez leads a stunningly talented all-female cast to an unmitigated dramatic victory.
It’s the late 1990s and NAFTA has created new opportunities and threats for the women living in Mexican border towns. Many of them make arduous bus commutes to work long hours for little pay in U.S.-owned factories. La Ruta — inspired by real testimonies — allows audiences to drop in on the stressful demands that keep them fighting, laughing, singing and working, while unseen men administer a metastasizing culture of fear, corruption and violence that clings to the periphery of every word and action.
In this Steppenwolf production, most of the live music is offered by guitarist, singer and actress Laura Crotte (Desamaya) who leads her fellow cast members through poignant, piercing musical interludes interwoven through the play’s action. A trobairitz (the feminine troubadour) for the late 20th century, the combination of Ms. Crotte’s musical gifts and acting talents result in a stunning visual soundtrack that penetrates the eyes and ears. Audiences are initially drawn in, then bid goodnight by the performer’s siren calls for love, peace and justice. There were more than a few misty eyes in the audience after this week’s first press opening, a testament to La Ruta’s powerful combination of song and drama.
The plot centers around the disappearance of a young, wide-eyed and earnest young factory worker named Brenda (a terrific Cher Alvarez, making her Steppenwolf debut). The daughter of aged-out laborer Yoli (an utterly focused and steely-eyed Sandra Delgado), the high school dropout dreams of financial independence, boys and the intimacy and support offered by adult female friendships. When it comes to the last of these, she and her mother may have both chosen poorly in associating with Ivonne (Karen Rodriguez), an outwardly brash but inwardly terrified factory colleague engaged in a mysterious, relatively disadvantaged quid-pro-quo with “monsters.”
Offering Yoli equal doses of empathy, emotional support and tough talk is her longtime friend Marisela (the commanding Charin Alvarez), whose own daughter Rubi went missing a couple years before the action unfolds. Marisela’s loss and anger eventually beckon her to a revolutionary road that is inspiring and frightening to the women who love her. In finding and amplifying her voice through powerlessness, Marisela is a symbol of mother and womanhood, the willingness to endure pain in service of greater opportunity for the next generation.
La Ruta is supported by a trio of scenic, lighting and projection design talent: Regina Garcia, Jesse Klug and Rasean Davonte Johnson. The artists and technicians work seamlessly to move audiences through non-linear timelines, creating a sense of everywoman in every age and place. Many of the scenes are written in Spanish and the setting may be Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, but the struggles of these poor, strong, beautiful women are universal. This lends an additional undercurrent of tragic urgency to the still-unfolding story of the fight for equal rights and security.
Running 90-minutes with no intermission (audiences won’t want one anyway), La Ruta is a must-see.
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted, Chicago
Through January 27
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.