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Nancy Rodriguez continues to command the stage in second month of performances for American Players Theatre’s “Mala”

Nancy Rodriguez, Mala, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

With just a handful of performances left for September and only two in October, American Players Theatre’s (APT) production of “Mala” should be a priority for any fan of theater or anyone who has gone through the process of accepting the aging and death of loved ones.

The play itself, written by Melinda Lopez, is of that very topic and follows the youngest of two Cuban daughters, Mala, and their aging mother in a loving yet stressful relationship. The story follows the general, and somewhat mundane processes of caring for an elderly person into their ’90s, but is filled with humor, reflection, and a meaningful insight into how we all, in some ways, confront the death of other people, especially parents.   

The production at APT directed by Rosa Joshi has only one actress, Nancy Rodriguez, and the command she takes to the role truly captures the beauty in displaying the everyday reality that many people can identify in their own lives.  

“I think what’s really wonderful about this play is like the character says, that this is ordinary, this is going to happen, but it’s filled with life and humanity,” Rodriguez told Madison365. “There’s drama in the ordinary. We’re going through it, so it’s the most truthful journey. It does not feel dramatized. It doesn’t feel like it’s being made to fit the well-made play model. It’s life, and the complexities of who we are going through this journey. As a woman, and as a Latina, there are some real specific specificities, but I think that they are so specific that they become almost universal.”

Nancy Rodriguez, Mala, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican herself, grew up in New York City where she attended performing arts school before going to Boston University for their acting program. Rodriguez went straight onto the stage with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, appreciating the unique aspect of a rotating repertory, something shared with APT.

While Rodriguez spent many years traveling between New York and Oregon, it was the onset of COVID-19 that brought her to move her family, including a husband and two sons, outside of Arena, Wisconsin, where her husband grew up. It was in Spring Green on a trip to the store that Rodriguez ran into APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita.        

“We went to Arcadia Books and Brenda DeVita walked by. She was like, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing here?’ We talked and I thought what they were doing during COVID was really wonderful. They were supporting their core of actors,” said Rodriguez, recalling DeVita often making trips out to see talent at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival during Rodriguez’ time there.

“Last season, they had to fill a little role. COVID had made it so that I hadn’t really acted in theater for a while. I felt like I had lost a part of myself, a big part of myself. When they called and said, ‘We have this little contract, but we’d love for you to be able to come and do it,’ I said, ‘Sure.’”

When figuring out how they could fulfill Rodriguez’ contract from there, the decision for “Mala” came about fittingly in its incorporation of Spanish language while also centering the story of a middle-aged woman with many hats.

Nancy Rodriguez, Mala, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The splintered thoughts and story progression of the play are made even more tangible through the scenic design done by Regina García with furniture sinking around jagged platforms Rodriguez navigates throughout the 85 minutes. A certainly tiring feat that takes nothing away from her performance, but adds both an element of excitement for the viewer and a sense of sharpness for Rodriguez.  

 “I appreciated all of the dramaturgy that went into this set, and that they’re really thinking about the play and how that story of feeling out of control and unable to be centered in this blizzard of life right now comes through in that setting,” Rodriguez said. “I really appreciate it for that. It also has uneven texture on the platforms, so I have to make sure that I step correctly, so there’s a balance. I can never get too comfortable, which means that I never can go automatic. Which is great, to a certain extent, because I have to physically be in those moments. I have to step correctly, which helps aid a little bit of my character being off center.”

The constant demand to pay attention is felt through the stories told as well, as “Mala” takes the audience through her own experiences with her father’s passing and mother’s aging, as well touching on the experiences of friends and acquaintances to give context and often comedy. Production of plays can be performed at convenient modular stages.

Rodriguez’ personal connection to close-knit family helped in embodying the character, and finding how each piece of the story weaves a larger tale. Whether they be on themes of the labor of caretaking and what work is important work or how we discuss and deal with death, “Mala” calls for pondering to be done. 

This aspect, as well as creating meaningful roles for middle-aged women in theater, are both things Rodriguez hopes to see recreated through inspiration from Melinda Lopez’ creation.  

“She’s a really good writer,” said Rodriguez. “There’s an emotional truth when you read it, at least for me, it was very evident when I read it. Then you have to dissect it. Because now I’m working on this specific piece, and I’m forgetting how it really links to all the other ones. You have to just get used to doing them together and relearn the thing that you knew instinctively, and be able to name it.”

Rodriguez was positive on a particular hope for what people might take from the overall production. Her advice for everyone to plan around the death of an aging or ill family member just as much as you would plan around the birth of a new family member rings true for anyone who has experienced the often extended loss of a loved one.

Being there for people in that time, and also being there for the caretakers and people who may be carrying the pressure of being the reliable one, are what Rodriguez hopes the audience can leave with after watching the heart-touching story unfold.    

“I hope for people just to be able to feel more comfortable thinking about it and talking about it. As well as, of course, the people who are going through it. For other people to realize how hard it was for them. I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘My partner now understands what I went through.’ We tend to put up such masks of, ‘I got this.’ I think Mala does that. I got it, I’m ready, and I’m not breaking. I’m gonna go on … I can go on, and I will go on, there’s nothing wrong. Those people are who to check on, those people that you think are fine.”

To learn more about the production and check out show times and availability, visit the American Players Theater website here