Theater Review: Maria’s Song

The play starts with an off-screen raid, and then we see Sister Margaret ushering Maria and her son into their church.  Immigration officers want to deport Maria, leaving her son behind.  Father Cardenas thinks their presence in their church is a problem, because it’s bringing in cameras and reporters, and their parishioners are largely illegal migrant workers.  He’s also concerned with having his church seen in a bad light.

Sister Margaret feels for Maria and her son, yet she sees the reality of the situation—that the chances are not good for Maria being able to stay in the States with her son.  She wants Maria to talk to a reporter who can get her story into print and perhaps generate favorable public opinion.

Kelsey, a reporter for a local paper, wants to write a story to expose what families go through after a sweep -- against the wishes of her boss, who wants her to cover local public interest stories.  At first, it seems that Kelsey and Maria have nothing in common, and Maria is very guarded in her interviews.  But gradually Kelsey gets Maria to open up by emphasizing their commonality: the fact that they are both mothers.  Through these interviews, we hear about some of the horror Maria has been forced to endure.

Throughout the play, off-screen news programs and sound recordings are used to good effect, especially considering the limited theater facility.  Memories are also portrayed with recordings at times.  This is all very effective, because we see those events in our mind’s eye.  Kudos to the sound person for hitting the cues flawlessly.

The show has a lot of emotional moments:  People are picketing, and Maria's son Reymondo has rocks thrown at him when goes out to play.  Maria tells us about picking oranges and tomatoes for 14 hours a day just to be able to provide for her son and perhaps buy him a ball or book once in awhile.

Carmen Elisa Cancel is flawless as Maria.  She is completely believable as a woman who just wants to save her son, but is powerless to do so.  She shows strength and pride and conveys Maria’s mistrust of everyone around her.  Her clear melodic voice does justice to the show's simple but profound lyrics.

Mari Gillogly does an admirable job in the part of Kelsey.  I  know from experience that it’s often the most difficult to play the “non-character” part, but she acts it well, and does a good job on her lines and vocals.  Especially admirable are her duets with Maria.

Susan O’Gara is excellent in the part of Sister Margaret.  We can clearly see her concern and her conflicted feelings in wanting to do what is legal and good for the church and wanting to help Maria.  O’Gara’s tears and emotions are genuine.

Rick Bronson plays the part of the rigid Father Cardenas very well.  We are able to see his point of view in wanting to do what is best for his parish.

The music is surprisingly good.  There are some memorable melodies and the lyrics are hard hitting in their directness, but also have a very poetic quality.

The show is extremely moving.  I think that because the writer so strongly emphasizes with the plight of migrant workers, she was really able to get “into the head” of Maria, and makes us feel her emotions very deeply.  We think about what it would be like to do something illegal just to survive then be threatened with losing our only child.

In seeing the show, all I could think about was that it’s easy for politicians who go home to their safe homes and families to view illegal immigrants strictly by the numbers and not put themselves into the shoes of people who come to the states under inhumane conditions just to be able to feed their families.

The show successfully put a face on this situation.  This is, after all, a story about a mother who is trying to save her son.

I would highly recommend Maria's Song.  It’s a good example of how something that is written from the heart can transcend the small theater in which it is being performed and become something profound.

Suzanne Willett, formerly a comedian, directed this play and also wrote the book and lyrics.  She gives a lot of credit to her co-author, Shiela Wessner and musical arranger, Kent Smith.  A portion of the proceeds from the show are being donated to Farmworkers Self Help, Inc., a migrant outreach organization in Florida.

Maria’s Song, Oct. 9-24, 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Venue Actor’s Theatre, 9125 U.S. 19 N., Pinellas Park, $15, 727-822-6194,

To read more of Sally Bosco’s writing, go to

I attended a preview of Maria’s Song and I have to say I’ve scarcely been so moved by a play.  The story is about Maria, an illegal worker who has been caught in a raid on a labor camp and is making every attempt possible to keep her American-born son.  The emotional authenticity of the author and performers is rarely seen in local theater.

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