“Burning Patience” is a sweet, humor-laced romantic romp that is set against the tumultuous politics of Chile in the late 1960s and early ’70s, events the U.S. television networks’ nightly news shows barely touched upon.
To fully feel the impact of Antonio Skármeta’s tribute to Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, which Borderlands Theater opened Friday at Zuzi’s Theater — especially the kick-you-in-the-stomach closing scene — brush up on modern Chilean history.
“Burning Patience” is set in Isla Negra, a coastal community where the favorite of Neruda’s three houses in Chile was located. Jason N. Chavez portrays naïve young postman Mario Jiménez, who delivers the mail to Neruda. As the poet is the only one in town who receives any mail, Mario has plenty of time to ingratiate himself to Neruda, played by Roberto Guajardo. The young man learns, reads and becomes fascinated with words and metaphors, and is befriended by the aging Neruda.
When a tongue-tied Mario falls in love with Beatriz Gonzales, played by Maria Gawne, the 16-year-old daughter of the innkeeper, he enlists Neruda to help him capture Beatriz’s heart. But Beatriz’s mother, widow Rosa, played by Rosanne Couston, doesn’t approve and seeks Neruda to intervene and discourage the young lovers.
This is a love story. So you know how the story goes. Rosa doesn’t get her way. She does get a loving son-in-law who comes to work in the inn (and still delivers mail) and adores her daughter.
Chavez, with boyish good looks and charm, brings the requisite innocence and wide-eyed wonderment to the role of Mario as he absorbs and repeats the exquisite words of Neruda’s magical poetry. He and Gawne stir some chemistry in the inn’s kitchen and deliver Neruda’s lush language without a fumble. The two don’t need words in an provocative scene in which Beatriz teases Mario with an egg.
Couston brings precise timing to her role of a protective, hard-working mother. In the scene in which Rosa questions Beatriz about a moonlight chat with Mario, Couston’s outrage is delightful as she discovers Mario’s use of heart-melting metaphors and liberal use of Neruda’s words.
Guajardo’s pliable face radiates the poet’s many emotions and he eloquently delivers Neruda’s prose, such as a portion of the poet’s acceptance speech for the 1971 Nobel Prize for literature, from which the “Burning Patience” reference was extracted.
Unfortunately, we only get glimpses of the complexity and volatility of the Chilean political situation, such as General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup that overthrew the government of leftist Salvador Allende, whom Neruda supported, and Pinochet’s subsequent brutal human-rights abuses. The length and depth of Neruda’s storied careers, both in literature and political activism and service, seem to be relegated to the background. Without a general knowledge of that period — or at least a thorough study of the Borderlands’ program — much of the play’s power and impact is lost.
Rebeca Cartes’ live music adds another dimension to the theatrical experience. Positioned at the side of the stage, Cartes sings and performs on the guitar, the charango, a ukulele-like South American instrument, and an ocarina, a Chilean wind instrument. Accompanying “Passion Burning” is personal for Cartes, an exile who immigrated to Tucson from Chile shortly after Pinochet’s takeover.
Her authentic sound is a sharp contrast to the Beatles’ poppy, upbeat “Please Mister Postman” played in one scene and after the performance.
The stage, designed by Andres Volovsek, is set with pier pylons and a busted boat that evoke a beachlike feel, apropos to the play’s coastal locale and projecting Neruda’s love of sea. A few props converted the boat into a bed or into a kitchen preparation stage.
Director Barclay Goldsmith had the actors move effectively, and the spaces that represented Neruda’s house and the inn were easy to follow. However, much of the large, deep Zuzi stage felt unused, wasted. Perhaps a metaphor for the vastness or the sea? Or just a deep stage.
Costume designer Kathy Hurst’s work was spot-on. The pièce de résistance was Neruda’s driver cap. When Guajardo plopped that on his head, he was the doppelgänger of the Neruda of textbooks.
Borderlands first staged “Burning Patience” in 1987, 14 years after Allende’s ouster. Cartes and choreographer Barbea Williams rejoin Goldsmith in staging the current production.
“Burning Patience” remains an intertwining of poetry and politics that offers a light, funny love story — you will laugh — and challenges perspectives of a period of Chilean history and poet Neruda. But do your homework to appreciate the play’s full wallop.