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THEATER REVIEW: San Diego Rep stages impressive world premiere of “Tortilla Curtain”

The American dream collides with the American immigrant dream – in more ways than one – in the world premiere of Matt Spangler’s “Tortilla Curtain.”

Based on the novel by T.C. Boyle, “Tortilla Curtain” plays through April 8 at San Diego Repertory Theatre. Sam Woodhouse directs.

Delaney Mossbacher (Mike Sears), liberal nature writer for Wide Open Spaces magazine, lives in a nice gated condo community in the hills above Topanga Canyon with his go-getter Realtor wife Kyra (Lisel Gorell-Getz), dogs Picasso and Hemingway, and Siamese cat Gertrude Stein.

One night while driving on a dark, narrow road near home, Delaney accidentally hits undocumented immigrant Cándido Rincón (Kinan Valdez).

Cándido refuses a ride to the hospital, but accepts the proffered $20 and limps on down the canyon, where he camps in the open with his 17-year-old common-law wife América (Vivia Font).

While the immigrants deal with money, shelter and work issues (with Cándido hurt, the pregnant América must try to find work), Delaney wrestles with his conscience.

Delaney could be described as pro-immigrant, opposing a wall proposed by the condo homeowner’s association in response to a perceived – though questionable – crime threat from immigrants. Delaney is much more concerned about coyotes that attacked and killed one of his dogs.

But his attitude changes quickly – startlingly so – when his car is stolen and crime actually does invade his hilltop neighborhood. Soon he is even buying a firearm at the urging of friend and racquetball partner Jack Jardine (David Meyers).

“Tortilla Curtain” was written in response to a particularly heinous California initiative – Proposition 187 – that would deny most public services to the undocumented. It was overturned as unconstitutional, and anti-immigrant sentiment quieted a bit during the boom of the early 2000s. But it has risen again in recent economic bad times.

Spangler has achieved a remarkable feat in distilling this complex story into a 90-minute play. These are characters to care about, even with a few dips into stereotype and even slapstick now and again.

Woodhouse has taken it from there, with a fine cast headed by Valdez (artistic director of El Teatro Campesino, founded by his father Luis), a riveting presence as Cándido, a big, well-meaning man who wants nothing more than to provide for his young wife and family.

Font’s América is a fitting match, a young, optimistic dreamer with vulnerability, a steely resolve and great chemistry with Valdez.

Sears’ self-satisfied nature boy-turned-vigilante reminds us that even the most liberal among us are closer to fear, suspicion and agoraphobia than we might like to think.

The ever-reliable Gorell-Getz is excellent as Kyra and several other characters, and multiple smaller roles are capably handled by Miles Gaston Villanueva and Jeremy Kahn (the latter a scene-stealer as the slacker son of Delaney’s friend Jack).

The production is helped immensely by a fine design team, beginning with Ian Wallace’s striking set, a steep hillside swooping down to the arroyo below and augmented by rear projections. Jennifer Setlow’s lighting and Tom Jones’ sound design make excellent contributions as well.

The details

“Tortilla Curtain” plays through April 8 at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinee Sunday at 2 pm; some Saturdays at 2 pm and some Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm (check with theater).

For tickets, call (619) 544-100 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.