Enrique Xavier Martinez and Nancy Ross in "Sapience." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
What we have with “Sapience” is a failure to communicate. Primatologist Elsa (Mariel Leon) struggles to establish a workable “language” with Wookie, the orangutan she’s studying, (Nancy Ross). Elsa’s Latinx sister Miri (Vanessa Duron, who also directs this world-premiere co-production from Moxie Theatre and TuYo Theatre) aches to get through to and bond with her autistic son AJ (Enrique Xavier Martinez).
That’s not all. The expressive Miri is frustrated by the emotionally constipated Elsa. Elsa’s ex-boyfriend Jason (Alexander Guzman), who still cares for her when he’s not drumming up funding for the research institution, can’t persuade her to care back, even when he faces a deadly cancer diagnosis.
Yet with all these disconnects, Diana Burbano’s one-act play elucidates beautifully what lies beneath them: the anxious yearning to communicate, to feel, to matter.
Only in a pair of short, audience-facing Elsa monologues near its conclusion does “Sapience” go “message play” on us. Most of its 90 or so minutes find its characters – even the stifled Elsa – discovering within their sterile environment little joys. As when AJ delights at comparing Wookie’s language-sounds machine to his own. Or when Jason uses David Bowie’s rousing “Heroes” to get Elsa up on her feet to (briefly) dance. Or almost anytime the play’s omnipresence, Wookie, delights in the “hairless humans’” idiosyncratic behaviors.
“Sapience’s” breakthrough communication is the one quickly (perhaps too quickly?) achieved between AJ and Wookie, the two “nonverbals.” Their fast friendship born of loneliness begins playfully, but as the narrative darkens they together confront the realities of their isolations. When, in talking about Jason, AJ reveals to the orang the reality of life giving way to death, they seem to drift apart. It’s a sad moment for them. And for us.
In the starring role, Leon is challenged with making Elsa, who appears devoid of compassion, a character about whom we care. She does the best she can considering the rather strained backstory given her. Ross, meanwhile, is wondrous as Wookie. Her physicality is impressive, her facial expressions alternately mischievous and affecting. Noteworthy too is young Martinez in his stage debut as AJ. He was a student in the Options For All program run by this production’s inclusion specialist, Samantha Ginn.
Burbano, through the impassive but intelligent Elsa, asks us to accept that everything is normal, to accept neurodiversity. But Elsa it turns out wants more for herself. “Sapience” asks: Will she get it?
“Sapience” runs through Feb. 27 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.