AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Luis Alfaro
Directed by Loretta Greco
Presented by and at Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco / (415) 441-8822

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Playwright Luis Alfaro honors a community of hard-working people in "This Golden State, Part One: Delano," being given its world premiere by Magic Theatre.

This Kern County agricultural community has a largely Hispanic population, many of them field workers. The people that Alfaro honors are members of a Pentecostal Church whose longtime pastor has died.

Another pastor, Elias (Sean San José), from a San Diego church has returned to his hometown after seven years to preside over the pastor's funeral and to help the church with the inevitable changes. With him is his new wife, Esther (Sarah Nina Hayon), who has never been to Delano and has no intention of staying.

During the course of the 90-minute play (no intermission), all of the main characters undergo transformations rooted in their faith, not just religious faith but a larger sense of caring for and helping one another.

Besides Elias and Esther, those characters include Hermana Cantu (Wilma Bonet), the late pastor's widow; Moises (Armando Rodriguez), a young man whose marriage is dissolving; and Brother Abel (Rod Gnapp), the only outsider and non-Hispanic. The Oregon resident has been sent by the Association of Pentecostal/Apostolic Churches to help with its transition. The fear is that he might recommend merging this Delano church with some neighboring churches.

One other character, Romie (Carla Gallardo), is seen in flashbacks with Elias before he left Delano.

The play opens with a memorial service presided over by Elias, who tells how the late pastor saved his soul and treated him like son after his parents had died. It's a scene with Elias in his preacher mode along with many shouts of "Amen" and "Praise the Lord." It also introduces the other main characters, seated in the audience, as they give testimony.

One recurring reference in the play is California's drought, now in its fourth year. The people's reaction to it is one reason why the hard-boiled Brother Abel decides the church can remain independent.

In a speech that summarizes the play's theme, he says to Esther that the people "are loyal to a fault. ... This town is drying up ... but they've all stayed. A real community. Four years of drought that is going to make the Joads look like a bunch of crybabies and no one leaves.They are going to endure this hell together. That's California -- in the face of adversity they grow a garden ... They band together and hold on, which is why this church doesn't waver."

Artistic director Loretta Greco directs with a sure hand. Although everyone in this ensemble cast does well, Hayon deserves special mention as Esther undergoes one of the more interesting transformations in the play.

The church set by Andrew Boyce includes pews in the front rows and allows for easy transition between scenes. Lighting by Solomon Weisbard helps to differentiate between present scenes and Elias's memories. Costumes are by Alex Jaeger with sound by Jake Rodriguez.

Adding to the sense of church are two songs for the audience (congregation), with music and words provided in the "program" for the late pastor's service. Christopher Winslow serves as musical director.

"This Golden State, Part One: Delano" is the first installment of a trilogy co-commissioned by the Magic and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where Alfaro is playwright in residence.

At first the play ran nearly two hours, but Alfaro cut about 30 minutes. There might be spots for a few more cuts, especially in the opening scene and in the tamale-making scenes with Esther, Hermana and Moises.

Nevertheless, it's an engrossing, uplifting play because of the humanity and resilience of its characters.

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