Octavio Solis' 'Lydia': A Rising-Star Writer And A Miraculous Maid Set in a tough Texas border town in the 1970s, Octavio Solis' new play Lydia is fast becoming one of the buzziest dramas of 2009. NPR's Neda Ulaby talks to the playwright about his inspirations — and his past.
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A Rising-Star Writer And A Miraculous Maid

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A Rising-Star Writer And A Miraculous Maid

A Rising-Star Writer And A Miraculous Maid

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Los Angeles, of course, is known around the world for its movie business, but a standout play took a bow there this week. It's from the fertile mind of playwright Octavio Solis, and it's called "Lydia." The title character is a maid, but not your standard-issue maid.

NPR's Neda Ulaby takes a look at this cryptic cleaning lady.

NEDA ULABY: It's hard to say if Lydia is a devil, an angel or some kind of witch or healer. Clearly, she has strange powers.

(Soundbite of play, "Lydia")

Ms. ONAHOUA RODRIGUEZ (Actress): (As Ceci) Lydia, in your world, the things that never happen always happen, catching moonlight on the folds of my gown.

ULABY: The voice belongs to a paralyzed teenage girl named Ceci. You're hearing sound from a production in Denver last year.

In the play, Lydia is an enchanting young woman, barely older than Ceci. She works illegally as a maid, helping to care for the broken girl. The two form an almost magical connection.

(Soundbite of play, "Lydia")

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: (As character) His breath in my ears saying over and over, Ceci, Ceci, Ceci.

(Soundbite of groan)

ULABY: That terrible groan is the only way Ceci communicates with her family, but somehow Lydia understands her. Ceci lives in a vegetative state on a mattress in the living room while her mother works, her two grown-up brothers fight and her father drinks. A mysterious accident threw Ceci into a coma right before her 15th birthday.

(Soundbite of play, "Lydia")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Three days before quinceanera, three days. The dinner is set, the salon reserved, the homages are ready. But in the middle of that night, when everyone is sleeping, Ceci and Rene slip out a window in her room, where no one can hear nothing. Why?

ULABY: That secret and many others are answered through Lydia's otherworldly intervention, but don't expect a sentimental story. "Lydia" traffics in mess, bliss, carnality and sometimes all three at once. Some scenes convulse the audience in laughter. Others unnerve, like the final scene, which manages to involve at least three serious societal taboos.

We'll leave them unnamed, but they're nothing you won't find in a good Greek tragedy. Still, audience reaction was a problem for director Juliette Carrillo.

Ms. JULIETTE CARRILLO (Director, "Lydia"): You know, there are a lot of people that just sit in their seats after the end of the play for a while because it takes us a while - it took us a long time to figure out how to do the curtain call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Carrillo has directed a number of plays by Octavio Solis like "El Paso Blue," about a drunken beauty queen's affair with her convict husband's father. Solis, she says, spikes enormous humanity with in-your-face emotional rawness.

Playwright Octavio Solis says for "Lydia," he drew on poignant, painful personal memories.

Mr. OCTAVIO SOLIS (Playwright, "Lydia"): We carry these little darknesses, tiniebla, tinieblas, what they're called, inside, and they're my inkwell. They're my inkwell. And when I need to write a play, it's what I sort of dip into.

ULABY: Solis grew up right by the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas. And his plays often explore dark complexities of the Mexican-American experience in a place where deeply rooted families contend with restless newcomers. His own parents immigrated illegally.

Mr. SOLIS: They had come over in the late '50s right before, I think a year before I was born, in '57, and they both worked. They worked very hard. And they had in five years, five children.

ULABY: Eventually, they worked their way to citizenship. Like the father in his new play, Solis' dad was a short-order cook at a famous local greasy spoon. His mother managed drugstores.

As in "Lydia," they hired maids from Juarez to keep things together at home. Solis says he became a theater nerd when he got to kiss a girl in a high school play. He also nursed a passion for poetry, but in college he chose drama.

Mr. SOLIS: I was going to be an actor. It took me a long time to see that my writing and my theater career could kind of - I could serve both masters by being a playwright.

Ms. CARRILLO: You know, I have to say that there's not that many Mexican-American playwrights at the forefront right now.

ULABY: Director Juliette Carrillo says you'd think at this point, with such a long-established Mexican-American community, there would be many more. She says some producers shy away from Solis' work because it's so provocative. He's fearless about playing with preconceptions about major social constructs like the border. He subverts its cliches.

(Soundbite of chanting)

In some ways, "Lydia" taps into deep, primal things about tribal allegiance. There's a moment in the play when a young Latino challenges his family by joining the U.S. Border Patrol.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) I thought you should be the first to know, being family and all. I signed up about a month ago, and they fast-tracked me right into service.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Well, I don't know what to say, Sorino(ph).

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Are you nuts? You can't do (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) I had to do it, cuz, (unintelligible).

ULABY: Playwright Octavio Solis says "Lydia" is all about the border.

Mr. SOLIS: The border is right there. The border is a presence.

ULABY: And a metaphor.

Mr. SOLIS: That's so much a part of my fabric now of the way I see things. There's always a threshold one crosses, between light and dark, death and life, between one country and another, between one consciousness and another.

ULABY: And between fantasy and reality. Solis is working now on a new adaptation of "Don Quixote," dissolving the border between the old world and the new. The Spanish epic was written in the age of conquistadors, which has Solis rethinking their similarities with the Aztecs.

Mr. SOLIS: They're both, kind of, fatalistic, deeply religious people, bloody dispositions, real macho, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SOLIS: And with a real, sort of, sense of darkness. They understand darkness.

ULABY: It could only be the commingling of those two people, says playwright Octavio Solis, that eventually produced him.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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