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Review: 'Machu Picchu, Texas' gives eloquent voice to anguish

Critic's Choice

February 05, 2013|By Philip Brandes
  • Grieving sisters (Tara Stewart-Thornton and Bonnie McNeil, foreground) discover heartfelt family bonds in the wake of tragedy in "Machu Picchu, Texas."
Grieving sisters (Tara Stewart-Thornton and Bonnie McNeil, foreground)… (Julio J Vargas )

The two worlds conjoined in the title of playwright-director Timothy McNeil’s “Machu Picchu, Texas” are metaphorically linked by constants in human experience — in particular, the enduring propensity for senseless violence.

At one point in this affecting and superbly realized new play, a cynical professor of history makes the connection explicit: the fact that some of the ancient Incan city’s populace were beaten to death for no clear reason makes it “just like Texas, only with sandals and feathers.”

In a present-day Houston suburb, tensions and conflicted loyalties erupt among two families and their friends in the wake of a random, unprovoked assault that’s left Charlie — a gentle man beloved by all who knew him — confined to a wheelchair.

Portrayed with heartbreaking precision and finesse by the author, Charlie’s compassion and nobility of spirit shine through his physical wreckage as he refuses to wallow in victimhood. Instead, he gives halting but eloquent voice to the play’s central theme: the delusions that arise from our ability to imagine possibilities that life can never completely fulfill.

Although strategically punctuated with levity, the principal focus is on the psychic toll the beating has taken on Charlie’s family. Among the well-cast performers, principals Bonnie McNeil, Matt Magnusson, Meghan Cox and Tara Stewart-Thornton shoulder the majority of anguish.

Confessing their frustrations and disappointments, the characters are occasionally saddled with hyper-articulate writerly phrasing that works against the overall naturalistic tone. But their emotional authenticity and pacing never falter, whether in tough confrontations or silent exchanged looks that signal their deepest fears and longings.

That McNeil’s staging achieves such uniform and tightly-orchestrated performances from the entirety of his 11-member cast is all the more impressive — there are no weak links in this finely-tuned ensemble effort.

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“Machu Picchu, Texas,” Irene Gilbert Theatre in the Stella Adler Theatres, 6773 Hollywood Blvd.,  Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 17. $25. (323) 960-7735 or www.plays411.com/mpt. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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