Poet’s play about finding community in rural Maine is heartwarmingly sweet
Portland Stage’s world premiere production, Sweet Goats & Blueberry Senoritas, is a heartwarming, sweet and funny piece about the community that outsiders build with Maine natives and the joys and heartaches they share.
It’s a story about connections – the connections we can’t break, no matter how much we want to, and the ones we hold on to because they are our lifelines. It’s a relevant and timely production as some find it difficult to reconnect after nearly three years of being two meters apart.
Written by Bethel resident Richard Blanco and playwright Vanessa Garcia and directed by Sally Wood, the production is an awe-inspiring performance that sent audiences out of the theater on Saturday to reflect, laugh and share stories of their own experiences settling in the Pine to tell Tree State . It also gives theatergoers a glimpse into the Cuban culture of playwrights.
Beatriz (Ashley Alvarez), who calls herself Bea, is a first-generation American who fled Miami’s Cuban community and her mother to New England as a teenager. She brought a gift of baking and has a shop in a rural Maine town where she serves Cuban coffee and pastries, including those named in the title.
She is estranged from her mother, Marilyn (Jezabel Montero). Marilyn and his brother Tio Eme (JL Rey) were two of 14,000 Cuban children between the ages of 4 and 18 who were secretly taken to South Florida between 1960 and 1962. The code name was Action Peter Pan. It took Marilyn and Eme’s parents seven years to see her again in Miami.
In Maine, Bea shares her heritage with neighbors Georgette (Karen Ball) and Maynard (Kevin O’Leary), who take a romantic break from each other, and displaced Southerner Blake (Dustin Tucker), who is baffled by his continued status as a person “from far away”.
When Tio Eme unexpectedly visits and urges Bea to reconcile with her mother, the young woman realizes the importance of family – the family she was born into and the community she welcomed into Maine.
One of the funniest moments on the show comes when Bea talks about her trip up north. Her uncle challenges Bea to leave her family in Miami when she is 16. “Besides, it wasn’t just moving to Maine. Or have you forgotten how you got on a bus when you were 16 and ran off to God knows where,” says Tio Eme.
“New Hampshire,” she replies.
“Who’s running off to New Hampshire?” he wants to know.
Well, that’s a question many Maine residents have been asking themselves.
Another iconic scene is when Blake talks to Bea about how long it takes for a person to be considered “Mainah.”
She tells Blake, “Just because the cat has her kittens in the oven, she doesn’t make cookies.”
“Why would you even put kittens in the oven?! What does that even mean?” he replies. “Three generations in the ground before you’re considered a Mainer, we’re a long way from that.”
Bea agrees that it will be a long, long time before any of them could be called a Mainer. The characters redeem themselves with the inevitability that they will always be gone.
Every member of this cast is outstanding. During the rehearsal process, the actors were able to make suggestions to the writers, a rare collaboration, the program notes say. This is a tight, tight-knit ensemble that realistically depicts what it’s like to live in a small town.
Alvarez and Tucker light up the stage with their characters’ personality and passion, but Bea and Blake anchor the show in reality. The audience feels like they just spent 90 minutes with their neighbors.
Rey’s Tio Eme is at the heart of this production. After everything he went through as a kid, Eme is still an optimist. His love of life is portrayed so beautifully that it washes over the audience like a tide.
The set design, by Portland Stage Artistic Director Anita Stewart, features sections of pine trees surrounding the stage’s proscenium. This makes the audience feel like they’re watching a neighbor through the trees and adds to the intimate atmosphere of the production. Costumes by Lily Prentice, lights by SeifAllah Salotto-Christobal and sound design by Seth Asa Sengel complement Stewart’s technical vision.
Essentially, “Sweet Goats & Blueberry Senoritas” does for out-of-towners what John Cariani’s “Almost Maine” did for local Mainers. The new production will also bring guests back to the Forest Avenue Theater. Saturday’s show almost sold out and that’s perhaps Blanco and Garcia’s greatest achievement.
“Sweet Goats & Blueberry Senoritas” will be performed live at the Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland through February 12. The play will be streamed on the theater group’s website from February 8-26. For ticket information please visit portlandstage.org or call 774-0465.