The pandemic has prompted a perfect pivot for “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.”
Initially scheduled for a February 26 to April 5 run last year as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series, the world premiere of Isaac Gómez's play based on the New York Times best-selling young adult novel by Erika L. Sánchez was a sell-out until it was shut down early by COVID-19. The theater planned to remount it as part of the 2020/21 mainstage season, but when that became impossible due to continued restrictions, Gómez created an audio adaptation that has been beautifully brought to life by almost all of the original cast and co-directors Sandra Marquez and Audrey Francis.
The coming-of-age story may have been intended for young adults, but it should speak to anyone who has ever been an adolescent — or suffered from depression and self-doubt (and who hasn't?). Besides potentially reaching a much wider audience than the stage version, the audio production relies on our imaginations to picture the characters and their surroundings, which are mostly in Chicago. This gets around any problems of having adult actors portray teenagers, as well as possible staging demands.
Another advantage is that the story is told in the first person by fifteen-year-old Julia Reyes (Karen Rodriguez), and the fact that we hear but don't see her makes her deeply personal narrative especially immediate and intimate, whether she's making trenchant observations about everything, grappling with teenage angst or grieving over her dead older sister.
That grief over Olga, 22, who was hit by a semi while texting as she crossed the street to take a bus, shapes Julia's tale from the opening scene of the funeral to an odd encounter during her departure from Chicago for college more than 30 scenes later. Olga is the “perfect Mexican daughter” of the title, at least in her parents' eyes, and Julia not only feels guilty over her death, she also both envies her and wants to be nothing like her. As she tells us from the outset, she wants to be a famous writer. Or, if not that, she jokes, maybe a detective, though she doesn't particularly care for Nancy Drew.
Julia's love of language and books sets her apart from her friends and from the world of her parents, undocumented immigrants from Mexico with limited socioeconomic opportunities. Her favorite class is English with Mr. Ingman (Peter Moore), who stresses the importance of words. When she meets Connor (Harrison Weger), a white boy she likes, at Myopic Books, they bond over novels, though his knowledge doesn't seem to extend to authors of color.
Not surprisingly, Julia's main conflicts are with her parents, particularly her Amá (Charín Álvarez). A woman who's had a hard life, she works cleaning houses in Lincoln Park and insists her younger daughter help her, as Olga did before. She doesn't have a clue about the budding author's dreams and is quick to ground her when she gets into any trouble. She even rips up part of Julia's journal when she's angry, and her idea of being nice is having a Quinceañera for her, even though the embarrassed girl points out she's almost sixteen.
Hoping to show that Olga wasn't as perfect as Amá and Apá (Eddie Martinez) think, Julia sneaks into her locked bedroom, and in fact, some of her narrative is addressed directly to her dead sister. There she finds two clues: a hotel key and a thong. These set up a mystery that draws us in, but when the solution finally comes, it's rather anti-climatic. That's because Julia keeps getting sidetracked, first by a tense meeting with Olga's best friend, Angie (Bianca Phipps), and then by her own best friend, Lorena (Leslie Sophia Perez), and Lorena's new gay pal, Juanga (Robert Quintanilla). This involves a painful falling-out, a summer-long separation and an eventual reconciliation, all recognizable as more-or-less normal aspects of growing up.
Julia also gains a greater understanding of her parents, thanks to a trip to Mexico to visit relatives. Their horrific account of a border crossing, coupled with the Mexican strife that sends Julia home early, brings the difficulties facing immigrants to the fore, as well as putting Julie's trials and tribulations in a broader perspective. .
“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” is about 110 minutes long, 20 minutes longer than the live play. Matthew Chapman's sound design helps keep the locations and flow of action clear, as does the direction. A couple of scenes, among them Julia's first sexual experience, are more effective on stage, but the only thing that really bothers me is that some of the characters sometimes come across as caricatures. But, then, we're seeing — or rather, hearing — them from Julia's point of view, so that makes perfect sense.