Steppenwolf Theatre Company is currently staging the world premiere of La Ruta, by award-winning Chicago-based playwright Isaac Gomez, tautly directed by ensemble member Sandra Marquez, through January 27, 2019 in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. The gut-wrenching play, featuring an all-female Latinx cast, is based upon actual testimony, and was crafted as a promise by Gomez to tell the stories of women impacted by daily horror and the threat of ultimate violence.
La Ruta is a bus that operates to transport Mexican women to work in the U.S.-owned factories in the border community of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the Rio Grande just south of El Paso, Texas. As of August 6, 2018, the Dallas Morning news reported that nearly 200 murders each month took place here, in this violence-torn area notorious for gang wars, drug cartel activity, human trafficking, sexual assault and “feminicidio”, or the murder of women.
The play is difficult to watch, not only because of the characters’ constant and pervasive fear of impending doom, but perhaps even more so because of the stultifying nature of their everyday lives. Yet the viewer cannot look away, cannot help but be infected by the sameness, the lack of pleasure in life, the absence of stimulation in the barren surroundings, the banality of 12 hour days sewing jean garments for virtually no pay, the ugliness of the factory and the outside world.
The only things in life that serve to ameliorate despair are the relationships these women have with each other and the love they have for their (lost) daughters, as well as their enjoyment of music. Both the everyday support they give and provide for each other and their instinctive, fully felt physical response to the immediately accessible original songs are obvious and primal. This woman-to-woman interaction is by no means free from confrontation, and that is just another aspect of its unvarnished verisimilitude.
Where are the men in this story? They are the unseen, the imitated, the reason we wear lipstick, the referred to “novio” (sweetheart), the menace just out of sight. What we do see are the projected and surprisingly uniformly lovely images of all those slain daughters, siblings, the sold, the tortured, the gone but not forgotten.
As the action- and inaction- develops and converges, we are drawn inside the bell jar of constricted, hopeless lives. And yet, despite the reality of brutality and lack of any hope for betterment, a clear-eyed politically fearless voice emerges, using her own personal loss as a springboard to seek better lives for her sisters. Marisela will keep on demonstrating, keep on supporting even those sister-friends who have sold their soul- and their workmates- to the devil. And where there is one such, there may be more.
There is no real resolution, no easy answers; we are left- as we should be by this too true saga- bereft and unsettled. “What if God is one of us”, muses Marisela, while she and Yoli wait for the bus/wait for their daughters to come home. What if, indeed?
La Ruta cast features ensemble member Karen Rodriguez in a thunderingly good performance as ferocious Ivonne, with Charín Alvarez as determined eyes-wide-open Marisela, Cher Álvarez as unspoiled ingénue Brenda, Laura Crotte as the voice of protest and eternal lament Desamaya, Sandra Delgado as eternal mother crying in the wilderness Yoli, Mari Marroquin as nameless faceless Everywoman Zaide, and Alice da Cunha and Isabella Gerasole as stoic Women of Juarez.
For information and tickets to La Rutaand all the great programming at Steppenwolf Theatre, go to www.steppenwolf.org
All photos by Michael Brosilow