- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

Julia Alvarez’s best-selling 1991 novel of acculturation, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” is translated for the stage by Mexican-born local playwright Karen Zacarias with such broad, dedicated strokes that you miss the details that stipple the emotional landscape of four very different Latinas.

The breadth and reach of Miss Alvarez’s novel is vivaciously evoked in Round House Theatre’s production, directed with a keen eye toward sun-soaked Caribbean color and light by Blake Robison. Miss Zacarias retains the novel’s reverse chronology, moving backward from a strained birthday party for the family’s patriarch, Papi (Emilio Delgado) in the 1980s to the girls’ privileged upbringing in the Dominican Republic in the ‘50s under the Trujillo dictatorship, before the family fled to the United States.

She also keeps the book’s episodic structure as well as the effective contrivance of having the family’s accents grow thicker as they move deeper into the past, until at the end of the second act, they are speaking completely in Spanish. Don’t worry — if your grasp of the language begins and ends with the word “paella,” the actors are so expressive that you grasp what is happening.

The performances are sharp and affecting, and the production moves along entertainingly. The device of having the sisters pack and unpack guava-bedecked suitcases to indicate time changes is both poignant and gracefully theatrical. Yet the theme of straddling two cultures but never feeling completely at home in either place — as well as the idea of the sisters moving from the stature of princesses in their native culture to marginalized “ethnics” in their adopted country — somehow gets compromised in the play’s picaresque pace.

The flavor and sensual quality of Miss Alvarez’s novel don’t come through in the stage adaptation, which seems a bit demure, except for the uninhibited glee of Bryant Mason’s macho posturing in a variety of roles, most notably (and eye-catchingly) as a lecherous hippie poet lolling in bed clad only in American-flag bikini underwear. Bring back the ‘60s? No thanks.

Sex, drugs, broken marriages, racism and fragile mental states are all handled with the same surface gloss. Any insights into how the Garcia sisters became uneasy adult women are revealed in the much more emotionally satisfying second act, where we see them both innocent and wise beyond their years as they live under a dictatorship on a beautiful island.

The costume color-coding of the four Garcia girls — the tortured writer Yolanda (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), the dutiful Carla (Maggie Bofill), the beauty and family listener Sandra (Sheila Tapia) and wild child Sofia (Veronica del Cerro) — sheds clever insight. The play pingpongs through time and pop culture with such brisk facileness that you know a lot about their taste in music and men, but not much about who they truly are inside.

★★★

WHAT: “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” adapted by Karen Zacarias from the novel by Julia Alvarez

WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 12.

TICKETS: $25 to $60

PHONE: 240/644-1100

WEB SITE: www.roundhousetheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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