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In Malvern, a dramatic excavation is underway. People’s Light opens its 2022-23 winter series with Mushroom, a fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying work about a community integral to the region but often unseen. It’s been a decade in the making, but this rangy play still needs more growing time.
Written by Obie winner and Pulitzer finalist Eisa Davis, it’s the fourth locally inspired world premiere in the theater’s estimable New Play Frontiers program, a long-term initiative that’s produced the acclaimed Mud Row (2019) and Bayard Rustin Inside Ashland (2022). The developmental process embeds a playwright in a specific community to “explore our American identities through the stories and concerns of our region,” a promising goal and worthy premise.
Mushroom, the latest installment of the series, is set “now, then, and in the future” in nearby Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The town is the self-styled mushroom capital of the world, an industry supported by the backbreaking labor of an immigrant and migrant community both proud and fearful. In a first for People’s Light, the entire production is bilingual, and the show is eloquently performed by a skilled cast of eight actors moving naturally between Spanish and English, their fluency modeled on the language patterns of the Chester County working community they portray.
An elegantly designed and printed program—24 pages in Spanish that you flip for 24 pages in English—also reflects the show’s laudable aims. As well as information about its accomplished creators, cast, and designers, there’s a timeline titled “Growing Mushroom” that begins in 2013. It details the intense decade-long, pandemic-interrupted research that included multiple workshops, interviews, conversations, readings, and reassessment. But in this case, the chance to consider and reconsider has bogged down its worthy subject.
We who live near Kennett Square are accustomed to both the fruits (and aroma) of this agricultural industry and the proximity of its laborers, but I truly knew little about them and their work. The play, despite getting mired in its own ambitions, is an illuminating window on a local culture that is foreign to many of its Pennsylvania neighbors.
A down-to-earth setting
The work opens on a darkened stage (by Efren Delgadillo Jr.) covered in chopped cork that looks like dirt, evoking both this rural farming community and the earthiness of a mushroom-growing house. Tiered cultivation racks (called “doubles”) morph into other set pieces, but they always retain their primary, slightly menacing reference. Designer Cha See employs upturned overhead plastic bins that flood the playing space with flat light, and the work of composer/sound designer David R. Molina greatly enhances the evening.
Projections designed by Yee Eun Nam appear on four panels surrounding the audience, with shifting language subtitles, as the actors move fluidly between Spanish and English. Much of this company is new to People’s Light, and standouts among the strong actors are Michael G. Martinez (Ignacio), Laura Crotte (Lety), and Janice Amaya (Third Person Omniscient, a kind of narrator-cum-Greek chorus). All the performers are remarkably engaged and deeply committed, something clearly appreciated by the diverse audience of Spanish- and English-speakers.
The playwright has interwoven a great many themes into her work, and it’s that very range, competing for dramatic prominence, that muffles the play’s messages and diverts its forward motion. Davis explores the plight of undocumented people and their interactions with ICE; the uncertainty of DACA dreamers; how mushrooms are actually grown (new to me); the stress of mother/daughter relationships; cross-cultural romance; divisions between management and workers; the region’s wealth/poverty gulf; inability to commit to relationship or a course of action; and the huge subject of restorative justice—oblique in the first act, dominating in Act II, and something that could be the topic of a stand-alone play.
Indeed, any of her subjects, or a smaller group of them, could be the basis for a riveting theater piece. But layered or intertwined as they are here, they overwhelm. Additionally, dramatic devices simply disappear. For example, the first act “musical chairs” scenario, where one chair too few leaves someone left out of the ensuing action, is an apt metaphor for many of the play’s concerns, but after a few times, it simply vanishes, never to return.
There is strong writing throughout, and the well-crafted emotional monologues and dialogues are the most successful sections of this work. Group interactions were less focused, the script swinging from those arresting solo or duo character moments to scenes adding context or color that ultimately detour the dramatic through-line. The script also often veers into polemics and flirts inconsistently with absurdist theater and Brechtian confrontation.
I’m not a Spanish speaker, and many times the Spanish-speaking half of the audience was clearly in tune with cultural references I could only guess. But rather than being disconcerting, the company’s skill made this experience invigorating and illuminating. The evening is filled with fine performances, brimming with deeply felt emotion and dramatic skill. The company’s emotional engagement was clear and heartfelt, though these moving moments were scattered throughout the play like a broken string of pearls. A piece of marble may be lustrously veined and rippling with rich colors, but it’s not a sculpture until someone shapes it. So too with this play, lush with tantalizing situations and themes, but not yet fully formed.
What, When, Where
Mushroom. By Eisa Davis, translated by Georgina Escobar; directed by David Mendizábal. $42-$47. Through October 16, 2022, on the Steinbright Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401), Malvern. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
Masks are required when inside the theater; protocols may shift with evolving local and national guidelines, so consult the People’s Light website.
This show contains sexual themes and language; recommended for ages 16+.
People’s Light is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Service animals are welcome at all performances. There are a range of audio and visual aids, and there is a Relaxed Performance on Sunday, October 9, 2022, at 2pm (tickets are $30).
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