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Kathryn Meisle and Zilah Mendoza in Living Out
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In Living Out, Lisa Loomer has crafted an entertaining and thoughtful play that raises provocative questions about race, class, and the raising of children. Set in Los Angeles, the story revolves around Ana (Zilah Mendoza), an illegal immigrant working as a nanny to other women's kids even though she has two young boys of her own; one lives with Ana and husband Bobby (Gary Perez) in the U.S. while the other remains in El Salvador. By working, Ana hopes to raise enough money to bring him over, as well. The title of the play refers to the living situation of the nanny: Those who live in their employer's household "live in," while those who return to their own homes after work "live out."

Mendoza is superb in her role, conveying many emotions through body posture, facial expressions, and vocal intonation. She handles both the drama and humor of the play with equal finesse, and her performance is endowed with such vibrant inner life that you often get the discomfiting feeling that you're peering into the character's soul.

Ana's employer is Nancy Robin (Kathryn Meisle), an entertainment lawyer and first-time mother. She and husband Richard (Joseph Urla) are middle-class, white liberals. Both are a little uncomfortable with the class implications of hiring a nanny, but Nancy wants to return to work shortly after giving birth because 1) she loves her job, and 2) she and her husband need to pay off the high mortgage on their recently purchased home, located in a more prosperous neighborhood than the one they lived in previously.

The first act of the play is a hilarious satire of the nanny business. The supporting cast includes two more pairs of nannies and their white female employers; these characters are written broadly, and the white women are largely unsympathetic. Wallace Breyer (Judith Hawkins) recommends that Nancy test out her new nanny by leaving cash on a table and counting it later to see if anything was taken. She also urges Nancy to purchase a "Nanny Cam" -- a camera hidden inside a teddy bear. Hawkins makes the most of her slimly written role, as does Kelly Coffield Park as Linda, the mother to two rambunctious twin boys in addition to a new baby.

Although the nannies are drawn more sympathetically, Loomer doesn't spare them in her satiric approach. Ana meets with Zoila (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Sandra (Maria Elena Ramirez) in the park; although they are all women of color, they gossip about which races are the worst employers. Stereotypes about Jews, Chinese, and more are invoked, demonstrating that racism works on many different levels and is not as unilateral or clear cut as it is sometimes perceived to be.

As Ana becomes a fixture in the Robins's home lives, both husband and wife make efforts to befriend her: Nancy tries to help Ana in regard to her immigration status, while Richard invites her to join him in a celebratory drink one night. Despite their efforts to relate to Ana "as a friend," it remains clear to both Ana and the audience that a severe class divide and an unequal balance of power in terms of money and position will prevent Ana and the Robins from ever really getting to know one another. Secrets are being kept, and as the lies and half-truths accumulate, tensions flare in both the Robin and Mendoza households.

Director Jo Bonney keeps the pace moving briskly and has encouraged some fine performances from her cast. Neil Patel has provided a stylish set notable for its clean lines and minimal amounts of furnishings; it looks like a child's playroom at times but calls to mind an art deco installation at other moments. David Weiner's lighting complements the play's action, and Emilio Sosa's costumes help to bring out the personalities of each character.

The play could use a few edits, particularly in the second act, and it takes a turn towards the melodramatic near the end. But Living Out finishes on a strong note -- primarily thanks to Mendoza, whose heartbreaking, vivid performance shines through.

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