Women turn up dead in the desert while cops throw innocent men in jail to satisfy the desire for justice. Among the Sand and Smog is a skillful character-driven story addressing one of the most talked-about human-rights issues of the past 10 years — the unsolved murders of dozens of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The victims’ families can only ask why the culprits are still free, but playwright Beto O’Byrne shows us in three insular acts at the Cellar Theater that the line between innocent and guilty is anything but clear.
Rosario (Marisa Varela), the mother of a murdered girl, waits to speak at a women’s-rights rally in Juárez. Varela is a true asset to Sand and Smog as the grief-stricken parent. Her voice is sweet and frail, and her natural gestures reveal that nothing will change after this rally. Shout solidarity all you want, but women are still disappearing.
In the waiting room, famous American actress Julie (Vanessa White) joins Rosario as the event’s headliner and is pampered by those who think her voice will bring worldwide attention to these tragedies. But Julie admits to Rosario that she doesn’t have a clear idea why she came to Juárez. In a heartbreakingly frank and tender exchange, we learn that Julie — naïve and optimistic — believes she “was born on the right side of the river.” Girls in Mexico are voiceless, but victims of similar crimes in America stand a chance of surviving, of receiving justice.
Act two discloses a little-known side of the situation in Juárez as two men are imprisoned for the abduction and murder of eight girls based on very flimsy evidence. In a cell for months without a lawyer, Victor (Jorge Sandoval) and Guillermo (Johnny Tejeda) grow desperate and weak as their freedom slips away.
Over card games and storytelling, Guillermo confides that he saw one of the girls before she died and could have helped her when a pack of boys bullied her. True to life, Guillermo is both likable and deceitful, showing us that everyone has a hand in committing and stopping these crimes.
In the last act, O’Byrne opts to dramatize the crimes in Juárez. Five girls reenact the events prior to their deaths in a breathless and unnerving canon, miming their captures and torture by invisible perpetrators. O’Byrne is in a tricky position — up until this point the episodes have been subtle and incisive, and the characters have spoken volumes with a glance. Sand and Smog avoided melodrama by centering on the living instead of featuring one girl’s story. But if we meet the women in person, how can O’Byrne remain both truthful to history and respectful of the victims? Is it effective to dramatize the unspeakable? How can he challenge our comfort zones but stay within them so we take the scene seriously?
Where subtlety allowed us to feel the weight of the situation, the uncensored portrayal of the final act made us wince, which is exactly what the women in Juárez can’t afford. There will be plenty who argue that the voices of the voiceless are precisely what we need to hear in order to address this ongoing injustice, but the shocking scenes are difficult to stomach. Nonetheless, Among the Sand and Smog hits home and is a powerfully written show that cuts through the issue to expose both truth and heart. •
Among the Sand and Smog
(no performance July 4)
Through July 6
800 West Ashby
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