Once Removed, at the Long Wharf Theatre through Jan. 3 under the direction of John Tillinger, is Eduardo Machado’s seriocomic look at a Cuban family in their first months of exile in America. Like the jewelry they keep locked away in a suitcase, mother and daughter also preserve shining hopes for a quick return to their homeland. The strangeness of early 1960s America, with its odd rituals like Halloween, as well as the harsh sweatshop demands put upon the once wealthy Cuban refugees, makes for a festering emotional crisis for Olga and her family.
Almost farcical in its opening scenes, Once Removed grows darker as Olga realizes that her husband Fernando actually prefers the challenge of his new American life. Then the family removes itself once more to Dallas, where Olga’s feelings of isolation get worse. Not everyone adjusts well to America, observes Machado. “In every Cuban family, there’s always the one person who can and the person who can’t.”
The play is Machado’s latest–and, he adds, may well be his last–variation on a theme of Cuban exile that he began with The Floating Island Plays quartet, surveying the shifting family fortunes of another extended clan from the 1920s through 1979. Like his other family sagas, Once Removed is linked to the playwright’s own life–but Machado insists the play is only “emotionally autobiographical,” not factual. Machado himself came to America at the age of eight and slept with his mother’s own smuggled trove of jewelry under his pillow until she arrived, unwillingly, some months later. After more than 30 years in America, the playwright adds, she still won’t speak English.
Since Machado wrote the first draft in 1985 and subsequently saw its initial performances at New Mexico Repertory Theatre and the Magic Theater in San Francisco, Once Removed has gone through as many as 18 revisions. The story has remained much the same, since plot is rarely Machado’s greatest concern. Characters are the playwright’s obsession–and finding the language that best expresses “what characters feel in their souls.” Just consider the yearning behind the displaced Olga’s definition of the word “country”: “The place where you’re meant to wake up in. The place where your nature compliments the surroundings. It’s your birthright. Your definition on earth. The landscape your eyes were trained to see.”
Maybe due to their soulful truths, some of Machado’s plays don’t sit well with Latino audiences. “They won’t touch my stuff in Miami,” the playwright remarks. His Broken Eggs, given a Spanish-language production by Repertorio Espanol in 1988, was a “fiasco” with Miami audiences, recalls Machado. Set at a disastrous wedding reception, with various Cuban generations shown mostly as unhappy and conflicted individuals, Broken Eggs left a nasty taste on some Latino palates. “Obviously it touches strong chords,” shrugs Machado, “even though it’s meant to be just about what life was really like back then.”
No place like home
Machado’s portrait of the unravelling Olga in Once Removed is similarly disturbing, even harrowing, as she secretively begins to stick pins in her flesh to make sure she never forgets Cuba.
First drafted in a feverish week-long writing burst, Once Removed has been finished in a far more tranquil mood. “I don’t have any more overwhelming anger to express,” Machado decides. “I’m finally just really into writing–which is a great place to be in.” Other recently completed plays bear few traces of his Cuban heritage. Stevie Wants to Play the Blues centers upon a woman who masquerades as a man to join a hot jazz combo of the 1940s. Across a Crowded Room is a comedy about the disenchanted daughter of a famous composer (“It’s set in the ’30s, like Private Lives,” notes Machado, “and it’s madcap.”). His latest play Breathing It In, studies cultish psychoanalysis.
With Once Removed, Machado feels that he has concluded his writings about the Cuban experience. “Unless I go back to Cuba and want to write a play about that, I think that this is the last one,” says Machado, who sees Cuba opening up again to its exiles in the next few years. He adds that his mother might even get the Cuban homecoming denied to Olga in Once Removed. “It’s still her dream. When I visited her in California the last time, she said, ‘I told your father that he paid for my ticket here and he better pay for my ticket back!'”