It’s been six years since Elliot Ortiz was shipped off to Iraq. Now back home with a leg injury, the 24-year-old former Marine and aspiring actor is struggling to make ends meet working at a Subway sandwich shop. He’s also caring for the ailing Ginny, who adopted Elliot when his biological mother—Ginny’s sister Odessa—couldn’t care for him. Ginny is the matriarch of Elliot’s extended Puerto Rican family, an intrepid gardener, community organizer and an anchor in their troubled neighborhood of North Philadelphia.
Elliot is haunted by the memory of an Iraqi man he encountered during the war and seeks out the help of an Arabic professor, whom he meets through his cousin Yaz, to help translate a phrase the Iraqi man said to him, which he hasn't been able to forget. The translation doesn't provide comfort, and Elliot continues to struggle—literally and figuratively— with his memories of this man and his time at war.
Yaz is a high-achieving composer and academic, the one who made it out of the barrio and got an education. She thought she’d be a tenured professor by 30, but instead she’s going through a divorce and working as an adjunct music instructor. Together, she and Elliot try to support each other through Ginny’s illness and subsequent death without much assistance from the other members of their family.
Odessa is a recovering crack addict and part-time janitor, living, as the playwright describes, “one notch above squalor.” But as the creator and site administer of a chat room for other recovering addicts, Odessa (who goes by the handle Haikumom) plays a critical role in her own community. She serves as a kind of den mother for this eclectic group that includes Chutes& Ladders, an African-American civil servant; Orangutan, an Asian-American adoptee; and Fountainhead, a once-successful computer programmer and entrepreneur now struggling to get clean. While their interactions take place primarily online, their commitment to each other is very real, as one by one, each reaches out and asks for help.
Odessa watches over her charges, censoring their outbursts, pushing them to take care of themselves and each other. But when it comes to her own family members—who demand that she contribute to the funeral expenses for her sister—she has less to offer. Crippled by her guilt over her failure to take care of her children and hamstrung by her meager resources, Odessa is unable to step up, leading to a confrontation with Elliot that pushes her to the brink. And in the aftermath of Ginny’s death, the remaining members of the Ortiz clan must make sense of where they belong—since it was always Ginny’s garden, Ginny’s kitchen and Ginny’s plastic-covered sofas that signified home.
Plays in the Internet Age
With technology transforming the way we consume and communicate, it’s not surprising that it’s also impacting the way stories are told onstage. Twitter, Facebook, texting, Gchat—all these technologies have transformed the way language is used. Many formerly reliable dramatic devices, such as the arrival of a messenger with news from far away, are now hopelessly out of date.
Playwrights have taken note: Many contemporary plays represent online worlds onstage. But while Water by the Spoonful shows a chat room that gives its participants a chance to reveal their true selves, other plays—like Patrick Marber’s 1997 hit Closer, about deception in adult chat rooms; Carlos Murillo’s 2007 Dark Play: or Stories for Boys, inspired by a real case of a teenager’s online subterfuge; or Jennifer Haley’s award-winning The Nether, about a darkly complex online role-playing game—explore how virtual worlds offer us the ability to shed our physical selves and take on any identity we choose, regardless of our race, gender, age or sexual orientation—often with devastating consequences.
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.