Basilica” Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre at the Cherry Lane Theatre

By Mando Alvarado
Directed by Jerry Ruiz
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

On the surface, “Basilica” is about choices gone awry: Father Gil (Alfredo Narcisco) chooses to return to his hometown to pastor the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Of San Juan del Vale in San Juan, Texas; despite the admonition from Lela Garza, his high school sweetheart, the good Father chooses to make a connection with Ray Garza (Jake Cannavale) the son he fathered with Lela as a teenage boy and abandoned shortly thereafter; Ray’s assumed father Joe Garza (Felix Solis) has chosen to marry Lela, accept Ray as his own son, and forego football for family; Ray chooses to leave San Juan to distance himself from the mother lode of dysfunction that threatens to dehumanize him; and his mother Lela chooses to give her life in a redemptive act of suicide.

Beneath that surface, on the rough and rich underbelly of Mando Alvarado’s play is the richer theme of motivation. In ancient Rome, the basilica was a large oblong building used as a hall of justice and as a public meeting space. And it is in San Juan’s Basilica that years of sadness, dysfunction, and keeping secrets are brought out into the open and adjudicated.

Weary of the dishonesty in his own life, Father Gil returns to San Juan, Texas as the pastor of the town’s basilica. Telling his parish he is returning because he feels he can be of help, Gil’s true motivation is to bare his soul to Lela, ask for her forgiveness, and reunite with the son who does not know Gil is his birth father. This event wreaks havoc on Lela and Joe and their family system which has become overlaid with years of deception, sadness, and regret. Dysfunction can hold a family system hostage for as long as no one in the system opts out and refuses to cease the cycle of collusion. Father Gil’s return to San Juan sets in motion a matrix of massive mine detonations triggered by a mélange of motivations.

These motivations are at the core of “Basilica’s” complex structure and the resulting conflicts drive one of the most interesting plots on stage currently. The audience strains to understand, for example, why Joe’s sister Lou (Rosal Colon) continues to operate the family bar despite its deleterious effect on her brother and his family. And why does Joe’s boyhood friend Cesar Cantu (Bernardo Cubria) continue to carouse with Joe at the expense of his own family life? And what motivates Jessica (Yadira Guevara-Prip), Lela and Joe’s daughter, to search for her imaginary friend and kill the neighbor’s cat (among other forays into metaphysical fantasy)?

Nothing will end the cycle of defeat except a sacrifice, some redemptive act, something of salvific proportion. That act is Lela’s decision (motivated by unconditional and nonjudgmental love) to remove herself from the dysfunctional family system. Her death, whether suicide or an accidental confrontation with a moving car in front of the basilica, sets in motion a series of parallel redemptive acts which begins to restore health and life to the Garza and Cantu families and to Father Gil and to the town of San Juan itself.

Under Jerry Ruiz’s inventive and careful direction, the ensemble cast of “Basilica” offers the audience the opportunity to explore the psychological depths of an American family which at its core is not unlike any other American family attempting to make sense of what they have been given and what they ultimately chose to do with that dynamic. “Basilica” will amaze you, enrage you, capture you, and leave you unchanged. It is a must see.