When I set foot in Teatro Paraguas for an opening weekend performance of Atacama, I immediately smiled at the stark, striking set: A totally black and empty stage, in the center of which is a large rhombus full of coarse sand. Atacama takes place in the desolate Chilean desert of the same name (to give you a thoroughly millennial idea of just how desolate it is, when you Google Map it, you have to click the zoom-out button four times before you see a single road).

What made me smile was thinking about a 2012 production of The Grapes of Wrath in New Jersey in which I was a cast member; the director, new to that theater, told the powers that be that he wanted to cover the entire stage in red dirt. He was promptly told (paraphrased): "Oh hell no." I was not surprised, yet nonetheless heartened, to see that Paraguas was willing to get dirty. (Theater superstar and Paraguas mainstay Alix Hudson told me later that this is also not the first time that space has allowed a truckload of sand to get dumped onstage; she did it there once a few years ago, too.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the staging, script and story of Atacama. Penned by Californian playwright Augusto Federico Amador, who was present opening weekend, the visuals deftly evoke the sinister and heartbreaking histories of its characters: Ignacia (Bernadette Peña) and Diego (James Chavez) have come to the desolate place that served as a dumping ground for the bones of those "disappeared" by the Pinochet regime. Augusto Pinochet, whose dictatorship was launched by a US-backed coup in 1973, ordered the internment and torture of tens of thousands of socialists, communists and critics; the Chilean government says about 3,000 people were killed. Many more simply disappeared.

As we learn through the play's illustrative dialogue, when skeletons were moved from mass graves to the Atacama, they were pulled apart and broken, and pieces fell bit by bit along the way—and now Ignacia and Diego, whose children disappeared, are searching for fragments. The play is firmly placed in time and space, which is gratifying: Diego references being able to see the telescope domes of the La Silla Observatory above where they are digging.

International human rights law dictates that governments must identify the bodies of those disappeared and killed by repressive regimes; as Ignacia explains, when diggers find pieces of human bones, they're sent to the city of Santiago for DNA tests. (Early on, Diego, who's new to the desert, asks longtime digger Ignacia what she has found of her son so far. "Three finger bones of his left hand," she begins wistfully.)

The beginning of the evening serves as a multimedia introduction to the Chilean resistance, with brief music and poetry to start, followed by two people holding a white sheet onto which images of Pinochet are projected, along with words to the protest song "El Pueblo Unido, Jamás Será Vencido." The Spanish-language poems and music at the beginning don't come with translations. But we are in Santa Fe, after all—and at Paraguas at that—so, many audience members chuckled at what this non-Spanish-speaker can only assume were funny lines, and often sang along as well.

The script is really nicely done, heavy history paired fluidly with the characters' humanity—kudos to Amador. But there's nothing precious or heartstring-tuggy in Ignacia or Diego's stories.

When musing about religion and what they could have done differently to spare their children this fate, Diego asks pleadingly, "Do you think mi Laura would still be alive if I were a believer?"

Ignacia replies flatly: "No."

Remember that reference to the La Silla Observatory earlier? That was no mistake. Diego becomes obsessed with space and stars and philosophy even as he is digging in the dirt for the bones of his daughter; losing himself in things bigger than our existence is a sort of comfort. And that whooshing sound that plays throughout the play? In the beginning it's the sound of the desert, yes; but, as the aforementioned Hudson (who served as sound designer) tells me later, in the second half she switched to using celestial recordings (what even NASA describes jauntily as "howling planets and whistling helium," data sonification that becomes a "rhythmic cacophony." Sounds fun—is actually pretty ominous).

This play, however, is one of those where there is a shift so profound toward the end that my notes for the first three-quarters of it almost don't seem to matter once I read them again. Amador's use of magical realism, a notoriously difficult genre to even think about employing, is nicely executed; fans of the weird will get a kick out of this one.

All that praise being said, when I found Amador to tell him how much I liked this aspect of his script, he confirmed my suspicion that this play was written to be faster. Indeed, there was an incredible amount of air between lines; I wish I could have just taken a drawstring around the whole play and tightened it. While Peña and Chavez mostly gave performances I enjoyed, I think the whole performance, which ran 90 minutes without an intermission (counting the poems and music), probably easily could have been zipped up to 75 minutes.

The whole design crew—including Jeff Tarnoff and his always-impressive lighting, and the work of Juliet Marie Salazar, who both directed the show and designed the fabulous set—created an engaging world in which these characters live. I only wish the whip had been cracked, and cracked hard. The actors' performances were not necessarily lacking, but the snail's pace at which they performed sucked the life out of many of their interactions.

I let this play sit for a few days before I wrote about it, and the haunted beauty of its story and its dynamic design still kept rising to the top; one moment in particular that keeps playing in my head is when Chavez thrashes violently toward the end, sending clouds of dust rising into the beams of light illuminating him and Peña. The much larger questions raised by the characters—how families influence each other, how history influences the present, whether there even is a history versus a present—were clearly communicated by the actors, and the probing questions they asked resonated long after.

But they could have done it all in a fraction of the time.


Santa Fe: 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday Sept. 13-15; 2 pm Sunday Sept. 16. Through Sept. 23. $10-$20. Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, 424-1601; tickets here.

Albuquerque: 7:30 pm Fridays and Saturdays Sept. 28-Oct. 6 and 2 pm Sundays Sept. 30 and Oct. 7. $17-$20. National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 4th St. SW, Albuquerque, 505-246-2261; tickets here.