The evolution of theater in San Diego, and the burnishing of its reputation, depends on theaters—beyond just the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse—presenting world-premiere works. So bravo to Moxie Theatre's debut staging of playwright Tatiana Suarez-Pico's Lesson 443. Directed by Moxie co-founder Jennifer Eve Thorn and starring a four-person cast fronted by Daniela Millan, a student at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, Lesson 443 is an imperfect but sensitive play in which justifiable teen anger is transformed into understanding and reconciliation.
Millan portrays teenager Cari Gonzalez, who is wise beyond her years. (She sometimes sounds too wise, in terms of dialogue, for any teen). She is royally pissed off about: how her Mexican heritage, and accent, have made her the target of bullying at school; the death, from cancer, of her mother Maggie barely after Cari was born; and her strict and secretive father, who tries to separate her from her stoner boyfriend, and who, Cari discovers, cheated on his wife with Maggie's twin sister, Lottie. Cari's flammable feelings are soothed but not extinguished by the apparent ghost of her mother, whom only she can see and who imparts lessons about coping and adjusting to life in Ohio.
Young Millan is most engrossing to watch as her performance grows beyond the one-note petulance of Act 1 into emotions much more nuanced in the second act. Paul Araujo is properly righteous and guilty-seeming as Manny, Cari's father, though he overdoes his exasperated stammering. Wendy Waddell plays both the ghost of Cari's mother and the also-guilty aunt, Lottie, with matter-of-factness, while Anthony Mabey looks and acts the part of the well-meaning boyfriend with the hash pipe and the electric guitar.
The contrivance of a mother-confessor ghost to treat all the confusion and anger inside Cari is expedient storytelling to be sure, and the numbered lessons imparted, in spite of the play's title, seems like a throwaway device. The merits of Lesson 443 reside in Cari's coming-of-age fragility, as played by the promising Millan, and in the statement Suarez-Pico makes about being who you are and trying to let go, which, we all know, doesn't always happen.
Lesson 443 runs through May 24 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando. $20-$27; moxietheatre.com
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