Long ago, Barbara Lebow’s parents took a trip to Cuba. A photo of them taken there, in front of a tiled fountain with palm trees in the background, gave the playwright her first glimpse of the island. Nine years ago, stories from a friend who had recently returned from a trip to Cuba got Lebow’s mind started on a play she wanted to write. After years of exploration and interest, it was a walk on a Santa Barbara beach that brought it all together and created her new play, “La Niñera: The Nursemaid,” which opened last Friday evening at Hatlen Theatre.
Under the direction of Risa Brainin, UCSB presents the second-world production of a new play by Lebow. Brainin said it was a unique experience to work in contact with the root of the play, which she and Lebow both said gives way to a feeling of constant evolution.
“The process is the most exciting part,” Lebow said.
Last year, the two teamed up to produce another UCSB production, “Plumfield, Iraq.” The year 2009 brings us the story of “La Niñera,” which follows the adventures of a magical Cuban nursemaid named Pilar, who guards the children of the Spanish Martinez family and the Russian Abelov family.
“The premiere is as close as we can get to the playwright’s vision,” Brainin said. And that vision was beautiful as well as masterfully constructed and brilliantly performed.
The production moves in an epic circle, beginning on the tropical shores of Havana, Cuba, where Alberto Martinez and Noach Abelov first meet, and ending on the breezy Pacific coast of La Gracia, Calif., where their great-great grandchildren reunite in 2009.
Some 40 years after their arrival in Cuba, when they open their shoe store, we see that the company has grown immensely. With new branches opening around the country, their grandchildren find themselves torn between their family and the revolution that threatens to tear them apart, as some travel to California for safety from the Castro government.
Time then moves forward another 40 years, when the grandchildren of the information age are planning a family reunion. The wise Pilar continues to preside over the young ones and waits anxiously for the reunion of all her children.
“‘La Niñera’ is a contemporary American story. It is always about family, and people finding one’s homes. It’s about homes and homelands torn apart and how that affects families generations later,” Brainin said.
Indeed, as the play follows five reunited generations and the varying paths they follow, we see how these families’ lives come back together. From the melting pot of Cuba to the ever-mixing salad bowl of California, each generation finds a way to pull their lives together in a new place. Through the guidance of the Nursemaid, who teaches the children to “love and take care of each other,” Lebow tells a story of the past’s importance in the formation of today’s American reality, and shows the strength of the many families who have created it.
You can see “La Niñera” this coming weekend from May 21 to 23 at 8 p.m. at the Hatlen Theatre. Tickets are $13 for students and $17 for the general public.