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Courtesy photo by Gerry Katz
From left, Lauren Taylor (Lena), Enzo Giordano (Junior) and Taelor Viera (Gloria) perform in "Under the Mango Tree," playing at the Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford through July 29.

'Under the Mango Tree' charming tale of secrets and love

Three teenagers pushing boundaries, two abuelas and a Nuyorican come together in a charming story of love and family in Collaborative Theatre Project’s latest show, “Under the Mango Tree.”

The tension between the old and young, between tradition and new ways are played out under the mango tree to the side of the set.

The mango tree is haunted and is a symbol of all that has come before and all that is to be. It will not die, and its fruit is poison. The tree brings lovely shade and represents terrible, mysterious tragedy and becomes the focus of three bored teenagers who are determined to find its secrets. In the end, the mango tree becomes life and love as secrets are revealed.

Becky Durango and Pam Ward play Fela and Belen, two viejas and lifelong friends in a small village high in the mountains of Puerto Rico. They’re caring for their New York grandchildren for the summer, no easy task. Fela and Belen’s memories are forever: of parents and husbands and children, of fiestas and green valleys. They hold to the traditional ways, and Fela especially sees the world as she believes it should be, not as it is.

Durango as Fela is wonderfully anxious in manner and rigid in outlook. Durango’s tight mouth, angry glare and constant criticism alienate her basketball-crazy granddaughter. Ward as Belen is more forgiving, more loving. The two abuelas worry together, fight and make up, beautifully demonstrating their deep friendship. Durango and Ward are both grandparents and friends, and they say their roles in “Under the Mango Tree” came naturally, even the fighting.

Lena and Junior are played by Lauren Elizabeth Taylor and Enzo Giordano, talented Southern Oregon University students. Along with Taelor Viera in the role of Lena’s girly cousin, Gloria, the three band together during that hot, tiresome summer, trying to meet their grandmothers’ expectations, trying to adjust to the old ways and customs of that isolated place.

Taylor and Giordano aptly portray adolescent angst and drama. With both the naiveté and the steeliness that comes with those between-years, they are too old to be treated as children but old enough to understand the longing for independence.

As Lena, Taylor screams her anger and frustration, frantic to be free of her abuela. Taylor’s narrow shoulders, shapeless tank and hightops make for the ideal girl becoming woman, the unlikely object of Junior’s first love. Giordano’s wild hair and seemingly gawky limbs are ideal for the role of Junior.

In the face of all that teenage drama, Viera reaches back to her middle school years to play the role of Gloria, a calming influence who softens her cousin’s anguish with femininity. Gloria accepts the old ways but dares to dream of a new future, far from Puerto Rico.

“Under the Mango Tree” is set in Puerto Rico in 2003, before the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island that lies off the coast of the Dominican Republic and is a land of extraordinary natural beauty with a rich cultural heritage, but few natural resources. The people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, and many have migrated to the continental U.S., largely along the East Coast, constituting a significant diaspora. Those who left the island always have the Puerto Rico of their dreams deep in their hearts.

In “Under the Mango Tree,” Steven Dominguez plays Felix Plaza, who is Nuyorican — one of those who left Puerto Rico to make his fortune in America, always longing to return to the place of his birth. Felix, now a widower, comes home to Puerto Rico to build a big house and finds love under the mango tree.

There is a compelling authenticity to Dominguez’s performance, because Puerto Rico’s tall, isolated mountains, dense rain forests, warm ocean currents and stars so close in the night are part of his own heritage. Dominguez’s parents are from Ponce and Mayaguez in Puerto Rico.

Dominguez, who also directed the play, has a long list of stage and television credits. He was excited to share his Puerto Rican culture with the Southern Oregon audience, bringing music and colloquialisms to the production.

“‘Under the Mango Tree’ is about the connection to family, the hopes and dreams we have for our family,” Dominguez says. “There’s a culture clash between Puerto Ricans from the Bronx versus Puerto Ricans from the mountains. It’s such a nuanced thing, but they’re very, very different.”

The opening night of “Under the Mango Tree” was a festive affair filled with art and music, with tostones, flan, chips and mango salsa thanks to Baja Fresh. Collaborative Theatre Project is contributing a portion of the proceeds from the play to humanitarian services and reconstruction in Puerto Rico following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

“Under the Mango Tree” continues through July 29 at CTP, 555 Medford Center. Tickets are $18-$25 and can be purchased online at www.ctporegon.org or by calling the box office at 541-779-1055.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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