El Nogalar tells story of class and corruption through Mexico's drug war

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The drug war in Mexico is constantly in the headlines.

A new play written by Tanya Saracho explores how this drug war impacts an upper middle class Mexican family. El Nogalar is playing one more week at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

El Nogalar, or The Pecan Orchard, was inspired by Anton Chekhov's classic, The Cherry Orchard.

The Chekhov play is about a Russian woman and her family that return to their estate about to be auctioned to pay the mortgage.

In El Nogalar, a mother and her youngest daughter return to their ranch in Mexico after living in the United States. The oldest sister in the family has been struggling to hold on and pay the bills and her family must fight off threats by narcos or drug traffickers to take over their land.

Like The Cherry Orchard, El Nogalar is both a tragedy and a comedy.

That is the play's strength as it explores class, corruption and family relationships with dark humor.

The character who makes us laugh most is the family housekeeper Dunia played by actress Yunuen Pardo.

Early in the play Dunia says, "What else can we do but joke or spend the day crying?"

Dunia steals the show with her lines and facial expressions. She is the comic relief to the terrible reality that narcos have taken over the town.

This is far from fiction as in Mexico today the narcos wreak havoc over parts of Mexico. Narcos have killed mayors to police officers and many innocent civilians. More than 35,000 people have been killed in the drug war since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006. He has gone after the drug cartels with the Army and they have fought back violently. The United States has committed to Mexico more than a billion dollars to fight the drug war but this has not stemmed the violence.

The play also paints a portrait of the upper class in Mexico, even though this family is losing their fortune they are still elitist. In Mexico, the rich are also known by the nickname fresas.

The older sister, Valeria, played by actress Sandra Delgado, so desires to be married and live properly. She also expresses disdain for poor Mexicans in a conversation with her sister who said her mother's American boyfriend had badmouthed Mexicans in the United States.

"You mean those other kinds of Mexicans. He doesn't mean us," she says.

The play also features the crazy mother, Maite, played by actress Charin Alvarez, her younger daughter, Anita, played by Christina Nieves, who is more Americanized than Mexican after years of living in the United States.

"I might not be able to talk Mexican, but I can dance Mexican," she says.

A decision by Guillermo, or Memo, played by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, who works on the ranch, will determine the fate of the family.

The characters are at times over the top, especially the mother. But if there wasn't this telenovela element to the play, it might just be too depressing to watch. Instead, it makes us laugh and also want to cry.

Saracho, born in Mexico and a longtime Chicago resident, wrote the play commissioned by Teatro Vista, which is collaborating with the Goodman.  The play is directed by Cecilie D. Keenan.  

El Nogalar explores an important political reality that may seem distant but it's not for Mexican families in the United States who worry about those at home. The play is ultimately a critique of classism and corruption in Mexico.

I only would have liked to see it place more blame for the drug war with the American public. If there was no First World drug consumption, there would be no bloodshed over drugs in Mexico.

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