The hardest part of tragedy is not when it strikes but what comes after. The sheer effort of picking up the pieces and carrying on is the stuff compelling human drama is made of, and Mando Alvarado’s new play Basilica knows this well. Despite the overwrought script, I left Cherry Lane Theater with a persistent lump in my throat, and for that, I can thank the searing performance of Felix Solis as Joe Garza. Due to Solis and the rest of the cast who breathe truth in every accent, Basilica becomes an utterly compelling portrait of a family in crisis.
Directed by Jerry Ruiz, Basilica is set in present-day San Juan, Texas, a small town where life revolves around the twin gods of the Catholic church and the local bar. When we first meet Joe Garza, he and his brother-in-law Cesar, played with deft restraint by Bernado Cubría, have just drunkenly stumbled into the Garza family yard late one night. Dressed in greasy mechanics uniforms, the two raucously reenact a triumphant football game they played in high school. “That was the best night of my life,” Cesar says. He laments the fact that Joe had to quit football to get married when Cesar’s sister got pregnant their junior year. It’s the setup for a familiar story of dreams of glory faded into a prosaic middle age. When Selena Leyva appears onstage as Lela Garza, Joe’s flinty-eyed wife, you immediately recognize her type. She insists Joe pray for forgiveness for his sin of drunkenness before she lets him into the house. It’s almost a sitcom pattern of a competent woman and her irresponsible husband, but in Solis’ and Leyva’s expert hands, the couple’s bickering rings fresh and true. Just as the argument is winding down, Lela reveals a much-despised figure from their past, Gil, is back in town and has been appointed priest at the Basilica, the town church.
Basilica’s plot unfolds around the shameful secret of their relationship to this mysterious figure. For an overextended chunk of the play’s two hour runtime, it’s unclear what the seemingly compassionate Father Gil, played gracefully by Alfredo Narciso, has done to them, except that it has something to do with their teenage son, Ray. When the big reveal finally comes, it feels somewhat overdramatic, as does the narrative twist that follows directly upon its heels. Fortunately, the cast is more than equal to the big emotional responses needed to pull off a plot like this. Rounding out the cast is Jake Cannavale making a very compelling stage debut as Ray and a beautifully vulnerable Rosal Colón as Joe’s spitfire sister, Lou. When you’re watching the honestly funny and painful interactions between all these people, you somehow don’t notice the production’s excesses. This play is ostensibly about sin--the very centerpiece of Raul Abrego’s elaborate set is a looming wall cutout of a cross--but at its heart, it’s a play about being human. By the end of Basilica, the characters are in shambles and nobody is in worse shape than Joe Garza, but in the blistering final scene, you don’t see the cross; you’re watching the man beneath it, struggling desperately to stand up.