Magic Theatre’s ‘Mangos’ a rich, memorable family tale

Ricardo Pérez González premiere cleverly weaves varied tones

Editor’s note: Performances after March 13 have been canceled.

In March, which is National Women’s History Month, theaters all over the Bay Area have been staging plays by and/or about women.

One of the most richly satisfying is Magic Theatre’s world premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s “Don’t Eat the Mangos.”

The title suggests a rollicking laugh-fest, but this is a tonally varied 90-minute family drama that comprises elements of comedy, sure, but also tragedy, and black humor, and even gothic horror. That title is decidedly not playful; it represents soon-to-be-revealed, shudder-worthy family secrets.

As “Mangos” begins, with a trio of squabbling adult sisters in the kitchen of their parents’ home in Puerto Rico, Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard” may come to mind, or the characters in Sam Shepard’s dark, quasi-comic vision.

But González has his own unique voice, and an emotionally involving story to tell.

Eldest sister Ismelda (Yetta Gottesman, who suffuses her troubled, stoical character with a deep inner life) has always lived at home, the designated dutiful daughter taking care of her aging parents: Mami (the always engaging Wilma Bonet, a tough, warm presence) and Papi, who’s been in a hospital bed for a year, not recovering from a stroke (Julian López-Morillas, who manages to bring humanity to the role of an unforgiveable and not-exactly-repentant sinner).

Ismelda’s two sisters are visiting. There’s middle daughter Yinoelle (Elena Estér), who has hopes of selling the family home when the folks die and moving off “the island,” and Wicha (Marilet Martinez), who, as the youngest daughter, has always been protected from family trauma by her older sisters. The three chatter at first in Spanish, then in English, with a surprising amount of name-calling and screaming.

A lot is going on, maybe too much. For example, Ismelda’s homophobia about a gay uncle at the outset is never developed and seems extraneous. And it takes some time to figure out the volatile, fast-talking sisters’ relationships to one another.

At the same time, Mami’s cancer has returned, and she’s in the midst of chemo.

Throughout, a bell jingles, softly but ominously. It’s Papi, wanting attention from the bedroom. The sisters are reluctant to respond to the summons. It’s Yinoelle’s opinion that the sooner the old man dies, the better, and Wicha flatly refuses to help out with bathing him.

As the play’s multiple scenes unfold — and González has an unerring instinct for ending each scene at exactly the right moment — the depth of the family’s aberrations slowly becomes apparent.

The island setting — the playwright’s heritage is Puerto Rican — offers a sensorially rich, almost overripe counterpoint to the roiling emotions and conflicts on display, especially a fierce tropical storm (conjured by sound designer Sara Huddleston and lighting designer Chris Lundahl).

Finally, David Mendizábal’s direction strikes all the right notes. There’s inherent melodrama in the script, yes. But the excellent acting all around, and Mendizbal’s careful crafting of certain moments (a taut bedside scene between Papi and Ismelda; the sisters, in the midst of crisis, singing a partly-remembered childhood song; Mami describing a prophetic dream she’d had; and many more ) brings all the varied tonal threads together in this memorably affecting play.

REVIEW: Don’t Eat the Mangos

Presented by Magic Theatre

Where: Building D, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 22

Tickets: $20 to $65

Contact: (415) 441-8822, magictheatre.org

Theater

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Yetta Gottesman appears in Magic Theatre’s premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s “Don’t Eat the Mangos.” (Courtesy Jennifer Reiley)

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