Nairoby Otero in 'Til Sunday
(© Deidre Schoo)
Nairoby Otero in 'Til Sunday
(© Deidre Schoo)
It's almost too perfect: A one-woman show about a Cuban woman and her daughter's early years in forced exile in the U.S. opening just as Fidel Castro releases the reins which he has held over that country for nearly 50 years. Yes, the timing of world events is on writer/performer Nairoby Otero's side. Her autobiographical show 'Til Sunday, currently at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Center, recounts her early life in New Orleans with her mother during the early 1970s to the mid-1980s (her father was unable to secure an exit visa from Cuba). We keep waiting for that moment when art and world events commingle with immediacy and pungency, but unfortunately, Otero's play never reaches such vibrancy, remaining a charming, somewhat sepia-toned look back on her experiences.

'Til Sunday begins just as she is about to celebrate her quinceanera (a party that celebrates a Latina's 15th birthday, the equivalent of a Sweet Sixteen celebration). Dressed in powder blue and pink tank tops and pink denim Capri pants (costuming by Jessica Pabst), her hair pulled back into a short ponytail, Otero certainly looks like an eager teenager. She uses her thoughts about the event -- which she both dreads and eagerly anticipates -- as the springboard for reminiscences. Unfortunately, during the course of Sunday, she limits the reflections to her teenage impressions about her own and her mother's history.

This perspective is the play's chief flaw. We ache for an adult's interpretation and insight into the events that Otero experienced as a child, such as her encounters with Pepe, a neighbor fond of holding forth on the situation in Cuba while he looks after Otero, playing Dominos. Though Otero, under Michelle Tattenbaum's direction, brings this older man to life with panache, munching away on a short cigar and gesticulating wildly, she only recreates his tirades. And though the history in these -- about the Bay of Pigs debacle, the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and the disasters of President Carter's policies after the failed boatlifts -- is terrific and the portrait is created with immense tenderness, Otero never provides any historical context on what we've just heard.

More successful -- emotionally and historically -- are the sequences in the play in which Otero plays her mother, who came to this country not knowing English and successfully carved a niche for herself and her daughter. This woman's early moments in the country -- when an immigration official informs her that moving to New Orleans, Los Angeles, or Topeka would be beneficial as these cities are prepared to provide more support for Cuban immigrants -- are truly compelling as are this woman's weekly, and increasingly frustrated, phone calls home to her husband, conversations which she concludes with the phrase "…'til Sunday."

Perhaps least satisfying are the moments from Otero's life in grade school and early high school. Though cute, they give the piece an almost "After School Special" feel, and often lead nowhere: a friend that Otero makes just before starting kindergarten is never mentioned again. These sequences also confuse as Wesley Apfel's projections, which provide information about the year in which they are taking place, are nearly illegible on the black wall that backs Jerad Schomer's scenic design that beautifully evokes a New Orleans' interior decorated with Cuban flair.

It's a comfortable environment to be sure, and it matches the nostalgic tone of 'Til Sunday marvelously. Unfortunately, this is a time when something more dynamic seems called for.