Bella Villarreal as Young Esperanza (center), with ensemble actor Eraina Porras (right).Below: Ensemble actors Gabriel Sánchez, Eraina Porras, Salvador Valadez, María Ibarra and Joshua Segovia. Photos: Siggi Ragnar
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September 7, 2016 Since its 1984 publication, Sandra  Cisneros’s celebrated novel The House  on Mango Street has been a part of  school and college curricula around  the country. It is the beautifully  written story of a young Latina living  in a dangerous part of Chicago who  yearns for a better life somewhere  beyond the barrio, yet ultimately  discovers that her experiences there  will always be a part of her. Any theatrical adaptation of the book  is bound to be tricky because it is  actually a series of brief, often only  peripherally related, vignettes. The  adaptation by Amy Ludwig, a Los  Angeles contract writer whose  primary job is copywriter for a major  advertising agency, has been staged a number  of times over the years with mixed success. That’s the version now playing at The Classic  Theatre, featuring an energetic, capable cast,  skillfully directed by José Rubén De León.  Being energetic is essential, since the scenes  are set up primarily as a rapidly paced stream  of consciousness with minimal pauses. The  older Esperanza (the always excellent Gypsy  Pantoja) and her younger self (talented  12-year-old Bella Villarreal) serve as narrators  while a half-dozen cast mates reenact her  recollections. Sometimes the younger one  joins them, with the adult Esperanza’s  viewpoint offered through the lens of  experience. Already planning to become a writer, the  adolescent is bright and observant, with a  notebook nearly always at hand. She absorbs  and records the sometimes harsh, often  amusing lessons of class differences, clashing  cultures or the realities of death, love or lust.  The spirit – and often the actuality – of Ms.  Cisneros’s graceful prose is largely retained: Women at a window “sit their sadness on an elbow,” or someone “looked into the dusky cat fur of his eyes.” Due to an unusual circumstance, Villarreal was cast less than two weeks before opening night – in a role brimming with pages of dialogue. Memorizing all of those lines in such a short time is impressive enough, but she also acts persuasively and without affectation. Multiple roles as friends, neighbors and others are convincingly played by Maria A. Ibarra, Eraina Porras, Arianna Angeles, Salvador Valadez, Gabriel Sánchez, and Joshua Segovia. Because they are identified only as Woman #1 and #2, etc., specifics as to who did what are, unfortunately, difficult, adding more confusion to the hurried sequence of vignettes. Esperanza recalls cruelty and thoughtlessness among some of her friends; one of the most painful is the scene when two girls are mocking a dying woman who has lingered for a long time. Shudder. The raucousness of boys on the make or portrayals of abusive men are other sober remembrances, happily balanced against three girls taking a gleeful bike ride or wobbling about on high heels. She also remembers such poignant moments as her mother realizing she did not escape the barrio. “I could have been somebody,” she says, encouraging her daughter to study hard and go to school. The message is clearer still when Esperanza is visited by las comadres, three black-gowned sisters who tell her she will not forget and will always come back to her home on Mango Street. Mr. De León keeps the action lively and natural, using the full playing space as defined by stadium-style seating (audience on two sides only). The handsome set by Allan S. Ross features front stoops of two homes against silhouetted cityscapes on opposite sides of the stage; one is red brick and supposedly run-down and small, while the other is white cinderblock and large. The script’s busy or truncated scene shifts tend to blur parts of Esperanza’s touching, humorous story, but that is not the fault of those involved in this production. On vitually all counts, it is strong and effective. And serve as a nudge, perhaps, to re-read Ms. Cisneros’s eloquent book. Diane Windeler The House on Mango Street runs through Sept. 25 at The Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Rd. Call 589-8450.
Classic Theatre: The House on Mango Street You can’t not go home again