Courtesy of the pen of playwright Josefina Lopez, a right-wing radio host named Lou Becker (think Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck) gets his just desserts in the desert. But that’s only half the story of Lopez’s Detained in the Desert, which makes an uncompromising statement about immigration, media and racial profiling. The latter hovers over the other half of the story, about a Latina victimized by the system because of her appearance. Loudmouth Becker (Charles Maze) and indignant Sandi Sanchez (Alix Mendoza) ultimately find themselves together in the Sonoran Desert – bruised, beaten, fried by the sun and haunted by the ghost of a migrant who did not survive.
That a one-act play this dense with drama triumphs is the result not only of Lopez’s stinging script but also William Virchis’ direction and the set design of John Iacovelli, which makes maximum use of La Jolla Playhouse’s black-box Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre. Virchis calls the Teatro Mascara Magica production more a “conversation piece” than a play, but there’s plenty of action here, particularly in the kidnapping sequence, in which the three siblings of a hate-crime victim seek retribution against the hate-spewing Becker.
A soundtrack that simulates the spinning of a radio dial and the specter of flitting skeleton characters add to the atmosphere, and the Becker broadcast ravings that kick off the play set the tone for the tension and emotional heat to come. Detained in the Desert is an engrossing 75-minute sit. Its messages about injustice, racism and the insanity of walls between peoples (and of right-wing broadcasters) never let up, rather like the unrelenting desert sun. But the answer to that migrant ghost’s tortured cry from beyond the grave brings tender and much needed catharsis.
In addition to Maze and Mendoza, who anchor the two-pronged story, Dave Rivas delivers an earnest and likable performance as the modestly heroic Enrique Martinez, and Elisa Gonzales is heart-rending in the brief but significant role of Milagros, another spectral figure, who Sandi meets in a detention cell. Kudos to Arizona, too, for coming off as one truly messed up state.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.