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A Rising-Star Writer And A Miraculous Maid

Octavio Solis fearlessly — exuberantly — plunges theater audiences into the sacred and profane by way of the Texas-Mexico border.

The up-and-coming playwright's latest work, Lydia, follows an unusual maid who arrives at the unhappy home of a working-class Mexican-American family and proceeds to wreak psychic havoc on every single member. The play has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Set in the 1970s El Paso of Solis' own young adulthood, Lydia centers on an enchanting young woman who moves across many borders — literally between nations, but also across metaphysical borders between unknown, unseen worlds. She can be anything for the characters who need her — a lover, a daughter, a prophet or a conduit for communication.

Although technically (and illegally) hired as a maid, Lydia's primary responsibility is caring for a near-vegetative teenage girl named Ceci, who was left in a coma after a mysterious accident that occurred right before her quinceanera, or 15th birthday.

Somehow, Lydia seems to translate Ceci's thoughts — an adolescent stew of childhood memories, criticism and carnality. She methodically unfolds the family's secrets, but the story isn't sentimental. Lydia is a creature of magic — maybe dark magic — and she makes mess and bliss in equal measure, occasionally at the same time.

Lydia has enjoyed four critically successful runs so far — at the Denver Theater Center, where it had its world premiere late last year; at Yale Repertory Theatre; at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, Calif. — and now at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.

Solis says he grew up in a family not unlike the one depicted in Lydia. His parents came to the U.S. in the late 1950s without documentation; they worked their way to citizenship in the 1980s.

"And they worked very, very hard," Solis says. His father was first a dishwasher, then a short-order cook, while his mother managed drugstores. As in Lydia, his parents hired maids from across the border to help keep the household together.

Solis remembers a woman who came regularly for years, then mysteriously stopped. He still doesn't know why.

Solis got bitten by the acting bug in high school, when he got to kiss a girl in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. But he also nursed a passion for poetry.

It wasn't until after college, when he was working as an actor in Dallas, that Solis realized he could combine the two by becoming a playwright.

Director Juliette Carrillo says one of the things that distinguishes Solis' work is what she calls his "in-your-face emotional rawness." He's provocative to the point that some producers are scared off by his work, she says, and by his darkly hilarious subversive streak.

Solis says the literal border between El Paso and Juarez has its own presence in Lydia, but the border is also a metaphor he explores in much of his work.

"That's so much a part of my fabric now, the way I see things," he says. "There's always a threshold one crosses, between dark and light, life and death, between one country and another, between one consciousness and another."

Solis will continue to explore these themes — and the border between fantasy and reality — in a new adaptation of Don Quixote, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for this year's season.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 19, 2009 at 11:40 AM EDT
In earlier versions of this story, we should have noted that the play has enjoyed four successful runs, including one at California's Marin Theatre Company.
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.