Playwright Luis Alfaro last brought his work to the Magic Theatre with a pair of eloquent barrio updates of Greek tragedies, Oedipus el Rey and Bruja. His latest world premiere at the Magic is rooted in a more modern form of ritual than that of ancient Olympian myth — the shuddering ecstasies of American Pentecostalism.
Alfaro’s new trilogy This Golden State was co-commissioned by the Magic and the much larger Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where Alfaro is playwright in residence. The trilogy explores what Alfaro calls “great American themes” through one extended Latino family with deep roots in the American West. Part One: Delano goes deep into religion and community in the Central Valley farm workers’ city that gives the play its name.
Elias is a Delano native who left years ago to become a big-city preacher in San Diego, but he’s returned to preside at the funeral of the pastor who was like a father to him. Powerfully played by Sean San Jose, Elias is a fervent and charismatic minister, shouting and jumping around. His shuddering with the holy spirit combines with a thunderous hum in Jake Rodriguez’s sound design to feel like a magnetic superpower.
Artistic director Loretta Greco’s staging converts the theater into a church. Seats near the stage are pews, and Andrew Boyce’s faux brick-and-stucco walls and arched rafters give the illusion of being part of the building rather than a set. From the start of the boisterous service that opens the play, the audience is embedded in the congregation.
Elias wants to stay just for a few days, but the pastor’s widow — a delightfully feisty Wilma Bonet — needs his help to keep the church going. She fears Brother Abel from Oregon (played by the dour and amusingly blunt Rod Gnapp) is going to force the congregation into a merger. Elias’ wife Esther (a demure but strong Sarah Nina Hayon) is also an outsider, realizing how little she knew her husband before seeing him in his hometown. Armando Rodriguez charms as an exuberant congregant whose wife has left him, and Carla Gallardo is a quietly haunting presence as a teenage mother-to-be.
The delightful dialogue and vibrant characters are so compelling that it’s a shock to realize how little actually happens in the play’s 95 minutes. Alfaro foreshadows crises that never come to pass or aren’t really a big deal. Not particularly plot-driven, Delano is about what this place means to Elias, what brings him back and why he left. What’s amazing is how vital Alfaro makes a crisis of faith feel, whether you share that faith or have never given it a second thought.
This Golden State, Part One: Delano runs through June 14, 2015 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.