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Cesar Chavez & Tenessee Williams: Heroes and Heroines on Local Theater Stages

Finding the heroes and heroines in a play is usually easy to do. Certainly, in Teatro Nagual’s “Cesar and Ruben” this weekend at Grant Union High School Auditorium, it’s obvious right from the title.

Cesar is Cesar Chavez, co-founder of what became the United Farm Workers and hero to millions of laborers up and down California and elsewhere. (Ruben, by the way, is Ruben Salazar, a Los Angeles Times reporter who was the first Mexican-American journalist to cover the Chicano community. He, too, is a hero.)

In the case of Tennessee Williams’ somewhat autobiographical “The Glass Menagerie” now at Sacramento Theatre Company, there isn’t really a hero, and it isn’t that easy choosing a heroine, either. Tom (David Crane) is the Williams surrogate in this family drama, but in this production, the character is more angry and animated than Williams seemed to be or as he wrote the part. The “memory play,” which features Janis Stevens as Amanda Wingfield, matriarch of the family; Katherine Stroller as the fragile daughter, Laura; and Eric Craig as the Gentlemam Caller, upon whom Amanda pins so many hopes for her and Laura’s future. Amanda is overly dramatic and less strong than one would want a heroine to be, and Laura lacks the self-confidence to be anything but used.

Both performances make for worthy watching this March and April.

“Cesar and Ruben”

Cesar Chavez would be 90 years old Friday, March 31, and that night’s production of “Cesar and Ruben” will include as guests Cesar’s son Paul, who is head of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, and other family members. This special Cesar Chavez Day production begins at 7 p.m., an hour earlier than the Saturday performance.

Ed Begley, Jr., a Hollywood actor and activist (especially known for his environmental activism), wrote the musical drama that reveals the life of Chavez — his family struggles and the long, difficult marches and boycotts required to launch the labor movement —  through conversations with L. A. Times reporter Salazar. In Teatro Nagual’s production, directed by Richard Falcon, Chavez is played by Juan Ramos and Salazar is portrayed by Elio Gutierrez. Music in the show is gathered from various sources, including songs by Sting (translated into Spanish), Ruben Blades, Enrique Iglesias and Santana.

“Cesar and Ruben” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Grant Union High School Auditorium, 1400 Grand Avenue. Tickets are $15 general admission. For tickets or for more information, call (916) 549-3341 or go to teatronagual.com.

“The Glass Menagerie”

The title of this play refers to a collection of animal figurines collected by Laura, the painfully insecure and mildly disabled daughter of the family. This glass assemblage is the only respite she finds from the insecurities and slights (some of them misperceived) in the real world. She almost begins to believe in herself after an evening with her “gentleman caller” (a workmate of her brother), but once again — like one of her dear animals — she is shattered.

Stroller’s performance is excellent throughout the play, uncannily using her body to convey an emotional fragility. Stevens exquisitely portrays the theatrical emotional fading Southern belle for whom nothing seems to have worked out — and nothing is likely to. As the Gentleman Caller, Eric Craig is tender and caring, a sympathetic character who does much to encourage Laura out of her isolation, until a misinterpretation of intentions ruins more than just his visit. By this time, Tom has effectively checked out.

Casey McClellan directs the play, which continues until April 30 on the Pollock Stage at Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St. Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $31-$38 general admission, with discounts for students and seniors. For tickets or for more information, call (916) 443-6722 or go to sactheatre.org.

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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