Regional Theater Review: TORTILLA CURTAIN (Lyceum Stage in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on March 25, 2012

in Theater-Regional


A frequently-used device in plot is to create two or more distinctively different characters and see how they function once they are thrown together (Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Odd Couple), but in Tortilla Curtain, the difference is the effect they have had on each other as they go their separate ways.  The result is a thought-provoking play about contrasts and perspectives, fascinating and brilliantly executed by San Diego Rep.

Tortilla Curtain begins with Rashomon effect monologues:  Delaney Mossbacher (Mike Sears – most recently the brightest spot in Cygnet’s A Behanding in Spokane) is a white, affluent man living in the Topanga Canyon community atop a hill near Los Angeles; with an odd mixture of both horror and detachment, he relates running into a man with his Lexus and watching him hit the windshield.  Getting out, he finds a Spanish-speaking man who is badly hurt, but is more terrified by the word “hospital” than he is of his own injuries.  Taking $20 from Delaney, he hobbles off into the canyon.

Next, Candido Rincón (Kinan Valdez), speaking English for the audience’s sake, recounts what led him to be on that road, his terror at the idea of being deported via a hospital visit, and how life-changing that $20 will be for him and his pregnant wife, America (Vivia Font), who should be waiting for him at their minimalist campsite down in the canyon.  Candido’s passion and rawness draw a sharp contrast to Delaney’s pseudo-expressive grandeur.

Given that they unknowingly live extremely close to one another, it is unsurprising that they will spot each other from time to time, but other surprises come quickly after Tortilla Curtain’s opening, and it is their reaction to these sightings that propels the multifaceted plot.

Playwright Matthew Spangler has adapted T.C. Boyle’s novel with theatrical devices that actually heighten the poignant ironies in the story and Sam Woodhouse directs on the Lyceum stage with a fluid elegance: in one scene, when Delaney is upstage, he declares to a friend about how he feels “violated,” and, by his standards within his generally blessed life, he is not exaggerating; but as he speaks, we are watching the most recent turn of events for Candido and America downstage in front of him, and his outcry seems almost ludicrous in comparison.

Performances by the three leads and the distinctive supporting cast (playing multiple roles) were uniformly excellent.  The character portrayals pull us in and movingly hold our attention.  But perhaps more significantly, this production may well be the finest integration of set design (Ian Wallace), sound (Tom Jones), light (Jennifer Setlow), and acting staged by the Rep in years.  The enormously raked stage is masterfully used: downstage is Topanga Canyon and the dramatically arched upstage area becomes a backdrop for lighting effects; video is used on an enormous screen to create effects like a disco, a highway, sunset, fire, and rain.  Upstage right is a flat raised area, allowing the actors to make use of a steeper sloped area and to create a chilling effect later in the show.  Integrated with sharply timed sound cues, the stage itself came alive time and again, allowing the actors’ good work to shine.

The final scene left more of an open end than was satisfying.  This may have been done for effect or may have just been a ramification of trying to shorten a 350-page novel to something stage-ready, but the next scene − the one left to our imaginations − could have been one of the most riveting of the night.  Nevertheless, this was not enough of a disappointment to undermine this great world premiere production.

As the affluent Topanga community votes to build a ten-foot wall around their community to protect themselves from the likes of Candido and America (the true heroes of the show) it is bittersweet to see Candido excited about the short-term job he just got − building that wall.

photos by Daren Scott

Tortilla Curtain
San Diego REPertory Theatre on the Lyceum Stage in San Diego (Regional Theater)
scheduled to end on April 8
for tickets, visit

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