Destructive demons assume some of the most seductive disguises in Tanya Saracho's Mala Hierba, now running at Second Stage Theatre's uptown space at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. The title is borrowed from the Mexican colloquialism "Mala hierba nunca muere," roughly translated to English as "A bad seed never dies." This insidious plant serves as an image of both strength and suffocation throughout Saracho's compelling character study, which pits human yearnings against the power of culturally predetermined obligations.
Marta Milans commandingly embodies this "bad seed" (a title unflatteringly bestowed upon her) as Saracho's glamorous leading lady Liliana, a Mexican trophy wife to the wealthy Alberto. Although Alberto never graces the stage, Jerry Ruiz's sharp direction plants an ever-present fear of his impending arrival, for his abuse (typically of a sexual nature) is a regular occurrence in their luxurious Texas household (represented by set designer Raul Abrego's Aztec-inspired bedroom layout, where the majority of the action takes place).
Despite the marriage's high physical and emotional toll, Liliana seems surprisingly satisfied with her life — or perhaps just her lifestyle — as she struts through upper-crust social gatherings wearing the finest gowns and jewels money can buy while her fellow guests whisper in awe at her incomparable beauty, grace, and social status. Her marital responsibilities, however, also serve the dual purpose of simple survival, allowing her to funnel money to her financially desperate family members.
Milans carries herself with the unfettered poise of a beauty queen while projecting an inner turmoil that intensifies as an escape route arrives at her bedroom door. Maritza, a liberated Chicago artist with swarms of tattoos and a masculine wardrobe (designed by Carisa Kelly) that sharply contrasts Liliana's paradigmatic feminine image, resurfaces as a source of upheaval in Liliana's life. Roberta Colindrez performs this initially mysterious character with a soothing emotional equilibrium. In the midst of Liliana's domestic minefield — made worse by her spoiled, blackmailing stepdaughter Fabiola (the wonderfully infuriating Ana Nogueira) — Maritza offers a living, breathing reminder of life outside this self-imposed prison. Hers is certainly not a life of cachet or financial security, but it's a life of freedom — something Liliana is eventually forced to weigh against monetary sacrifice.
Though the details of Liliana's original nuptial journey from Mexico to Texas are left largely ambiguous, the story implicates a very real and growing trend among Latin-American women. Foregoing safety for status, Mexican and Colombian beauty queens enlist as trophy wives to the wealthy dons of competing drug cartels — a position that often gets them caught in deadly crossfire. Saracho subtly weaves this political context into her story, and manages to do so with a great amount of humor. Yet Mala Hierba avoids any pointed political commentary and primarily zooms in on Liliana and the war that wages inside of her as she wrestles with the seemingly simple choice to stay or go.
Sandra Marquez, in the role of Liliana's housekeeper and maternal mentor Yuya, forcefully delivers a sermon of sorts to the conflicted young woman. In one of the play's most compelling moments, she paints Liliana's willing enslavement as an act of strength, likely challenging the audience's predisposition to regard her choices as those made out of weakness by a powerless woman of complete inaction. Maritza, on the other hand, worships the image of the Biblical demon Lilith — Adam's first wife who was replaced by Eve after refusing to meet Adam's demand of male dominance.
As Liliana struggles to choose between these identities — the one she has cemented as Alberto's subservient "mala hierba" and Maritza's ideal of the autonomous demon Lilith — Saracho succeeds in establishing the gray moral territory that exists between the two. Ultimately, we're left with the brilliantly maddening possibility that moral law is just as flawed as the humans who attempt to obey it.