A woman around 90 years of age is found dead in an armchair in an apartment in Chicago. She has been dead for a few days. The apartment is in a nearly abandoned building in what was or still is a primarily Black neighborhood. Most of the other apartment buildings surrounding it have been demolished. How is it that this woman was still living there?
And who was she? No one knows. There are no relatives or acquaintances to contact. There is no lease. No one in the neighborhood knew her. She is a "Jane Doe."
The city sends two inspectors to the apartment to try to establish her identity. The first thing they discover is that she was a hoarder. Stuff is everywhere. The apartment has its own stench, apart from the stench of the dead body. Sifting through the accumulated detritus of a life, they have to find something–a bank statement, utility bills, some mail, anything–that will reveal her name. The only things they come up with are old postcards and some other personal correspondence addressed only to "E. R." The mystery deepens.
Suddenly we are transported to the same apartment in the 1950s. The apartment is immaculately clean, occupied by a Jewish woman from Czechoslovakia named Esther. She is visited by an African American woman, Lynley, who lives in the same building. It turns out that Esther is the only white person living in the building. Lynley brings her a cake as a neighborly gesture, and they discover that they are both war widows. Their husbands died in the Second World War–one overseas, the other in the Port Chicago explosion in 1944 that killed 320 people, most of whom were African American. (Port Chicago was a munitions depot in the San Francisco Bay area. The town no longer exists.)
This is the setup of the excellent play Hazardous Materials by Beth Kander. The rest of the play toggles back and forth between the present day and the 1950s. Gradually, a relationship develops between the two women. On the other side of the stage, amid the junk, a friendship of sorts develops between the more experienced inspector Cassie and the newbie Hal. Cassie has her own problems, and Hal, almost penniless, is going through a non-amicable divorce with children involved.
The problems of Cassie and Hal, although not trivial, don't amount to a hill of beans compared to what Esther and Lynley have gone through and will go through. Their troubles are not of their own doing, but are imposed on them by some of the worst aspects of humanity. To reveal any more of the plot would take away from the audience's sense of discovery as the play progresses.
Everything about this Vortex Theatre production is beautifully done. Lauren Trujillo and Taylor Trujillo (sisters) are directing for the first time in Albuquerque. Their work is pretty much flawless. They have attracted a fine cast and crew. Stephanie Grilo and Jenelle Baptiste are perfect as Esther and Lynley. Their performances are lessons in truthful acting, nothing phony or histrionic. They might make you cry. Teresa Longo and Jensen Klodnicki are also very good as the inspectors, though their roles are not as deep as the other two.
The set designed by Mara Leader and constructed by Riley Lewis is terrific. I'm not sure who provided all the junk, but it most likely was the estimable Nina Dorrance, who is credited with props and set decor. One amazing bit of stage tech is that the picture on the back wall of the apartment transforms into a newsreel of the Port Chicago disaster and later on into Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope is the thing with feathers." I assume that Riley Lewis, the technical director, pulled off this surprising effect. Lighting design by Lauren Trujillo is spot on. Costumes by Lisa McWhorter and hair and make-up by Taylor Trujillo are period perfect.
Beth Kander is not yet a well-known playwright, but she ought to be. This is the kind of play that sticks with you for days. Thanks to the Trujillo sisters for bringing it to us, and to everyone at the Vortex for the wonderful production.
Hazardous Materials runs through November 19, 2023, at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd NE, Albuquerque NM. The running time is about 2 hours, including an intermission. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. For tickets and information, please visit vortexabq.org.