McAllen, Texas, sits in the Rio Grande Valley at a crossroads of fates. Desperate migrants fleeing murderous drug wars arrive on the threshold of salvation. Magnates with shady interests on the other side of the border sit in their mansion perches, their children secure. Others — like the alluring young Liliana (Marta Milans) — must negotiate the divide. They attach themselves to prosperity wherever they find it, for the sake of families on either side of the border, a chasm for lost hopes.
In Mala Hierba, Tanya Saracho’s pointed new drama at Second Stage, economic toeholds come at a high price. Liliana, the latest and longest-lasting of a narco boss’s trophy wives, puts up with her husband’s violent temper and rough ways in the bedroom. She copes with his outrageously entitled daughter, Fabiola (Ana Nogueira), a cocaine-sniffing shopaholic with an irritating nasal whine. But jewels and designer dresses can’t compensate for the life she has backed away from, the one she wants to live — modestly but honestly, with her secret, sometime-lover, Maritza (Roberta Colindrez). When Maritza gets fed up with waiting and arrives from Chicago, Liliana must decide: Will she embrace the economic security and moral compromises that keep her unhappily married in McAllen? Or should she take a chance on true love before her frustrated paramour loses heart?
Saracho, who writes for HBO’s Girls and Looking, has a special interest in the alliances women form to cope with changing circumstances. In Mala Hierba, those relationships conceal, but never untangle themselves from, material arrangements. Yuya (Sandra Marquez), the housekeeper, is Liliana’s confidante and counsel; they speak, in private, as cultural and economic sisters and collude as allies. Liliana and Fabiola jockey for influence with the unseen husband. They reach an “understanding” that acknowledges the power dynamic, but they can’t find trust. And the love-torn Liliana and Maritza are divided by wealth: Maritza’s disgust for it and Liliana’s fear of impoverishment. All these women are “kept” in one way or another, but some choose their complicity, and others, like Mari, resist.
The length and intimacy of Saracho’s scenes feel better suited to the small screen, where a heightened awareness of the borderlands could enlarge the tale. She confines her play to the domestic sphere, but it might resonate more if enlarged. Mala Hierba‘s most effective tactic is keeping the big border magnate, Alberto Cantu, invisible. We never see the man (or any male), even though we watch private conversations between women in his bedroom and on his patio. We know his predilections in bed, and we share Liliana’s anxieties about arousing his wrath. But because the male despot remains invisible, we see the margins but not the dark reality the play keeps alluding to.
Director Jerry Ruiz delivers a clean staging, and the cast plays these straightforward roles just fine. But once we’ve figured out who each of these women is, the drama holds few mysteries. Saracho shines considerable emotional intelligence onto her characters’ travails, but somehow a provoking drama never accrues as a result. The triangle of allegiances wants to open onto a wider expanse. For a play set in a big house on the suburban fringes of the Rio Grande, that’s a shame. Presumably it has great views, and there’s a vast tapestry of migration just beyond.