Play about Juarez murders – and how we react to such stories – challenges audiences at the Vortex

The Vortex Theatre is no stranger to producing provocative, confrontational works; they’ve been doing so for three decades now. Their latest production, Isaac Gomez’s “The Way She Spoke: A Docu-mythologia,” a part of their “30 Years of Truth & Thunder” celebration, pulls no punches in an interrogation of both the murders of thousands of women each year in Juarez, Mexico, and the ability of theater to address subjects of such horrific magnitude.

“The Way She Spoke” is a densely layered play, featuring a single, unnamed actress on an empty stage with a script she has never read, having a conversation with the unseen, off-stage playwright, Gomez himself. The script details Gomez’s research into his previous play, “The Women of Juarez,” and dramatizes his interviews with a variety of people throughout Juarez, all of whom held intimate connections to the murders. As the play continues, the actress comes to increasingly embody the people she’s reading about, to identify with the slaughtered and abused women, and to feel deeply disturbed by the nature of Gomez’s script.

As it unfolds, “The Way She Spoke” becomes less a relation of the stories of the women of Juarez and more an exploration of Gomez’s own guilt in writing a play that provides no direct help to those women. The actress embodies this guilt, taking both Gomez and the audience to task for feeling edified by simply watching a play about the topic when these women are still suffering so much. The actress’s response to the stories also ties those experiences to the objectification of women closer to home, and the ongoing threat posed by men who treat women as property in one form or another. This is underscored by the very nature of the performance itself, wherein a male playwright is asking a female actress to embody all this pain and suffering.

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This is not the first iteration of “The Way She Spoke” (it was previously produced in Chicago), and certain aspects of the text seem to still be a work in progress. Gomez hasn’t quite found the perfect balance between the stories of the women and the story of the actress, whose intensely personal reaction is only vaguely contextualized, which serves to weaken some of the play’s meta-textual commentary.

Despite these textual problems, the Vortex production is phenomenal. Karen Rodriguez, as the actress, fills in some of the missing gaps of her story through the magnetic strength of a visceral performance that plumbs the depths of her emotional and physical expressiveness. Director Rudy Ramirez’s simple but effective staging allows Rodriguez to initially charm with wit and warmth and then slowly but surely descend into moments of staggering psychological intensity.

Though hopefully this is not the play’s final draft, Gomez has nonetheless crafted a nuanced, challenging work of both emotional and intellectual depth. Rodriguez and Ramirez plumb those depths with great skill and empathy, crafting a performance that is powerful, thought-provoking, and a fundamentally resonant call to action for its audience.

“The Way She Spoke: A Docu-mythologia”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, 5 p.m. Saturday through Jan. 20
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: vortexrep.org