BOTTOM LINE: An insightful, bittersweet — if somewhat heavy-handed — one-woman show about assimilation, coming of age, and staying true to one’s self.
You’ve heard the story before: A first born daughter of immigrant parents struggles to achieve the American dream while simultaneously trying to uphold her parent’s old-world values. For Connecticut native Maria Baratta, this meant remaining respectful, studying hard, learning to cook and do household chores, and staying close to the family hearth. Not surprisingly, Baratta’s upbringing included both ample affection and enormous angst, and it is this seesaw of mixed signals that forms the basis of her award-winning Vignettes of an I-talian American Girl, a largely successful, if somewhat preachy, look back.
Baratta is a master at conjuring up the many family members who had a hand in her coming of age, all of them hell-bent on teaching her the rules of Italian Catholic propriety. There’s her mother Lucia, AKA Lucy, “who came to the U.S. at age 14 with big dreams of becoming a singing accordion player,” her father Tony, “who prided himself on almost everything, especially dancing,” and her rebellious younger sister, Nicolina. Then there were the aunts, “these amazing, wonderful, loving women who always looked as if they were constipated,” and uncles,” who boisterously competed to make each year’s best pork products and wine. Uncle Ignazio gets singled out for special attention. His message: “You gotta keep on the move, no looking back, just look straight and keep going.” Although Baratta admits that she is still confounded by this advice, the words became engraved on her psyche, and 30 years later, remain oddly resonant, if somewhat enigmatic.
“When our families came to America they took the traditions of the old country, brought them to the new country, and then froze them in time,” Baratta tells the audience. “They feared what they didn’t understand.” This was particularly problematic for Maria and her sister once they entered high school. The issue? They wanted to be like other kids their age who were able to date and go to weekend parties.
Indeed, the girls’ adolescence provides material for several amusing anecdotes since unlike obedient, studious, good girl Maria, bold Nicolina pushed the boundaries, smoking cigarettes, sneaking out of the house, and — gulp — finding boyfriends outside the narrow confines of their parentally-approved community.
While much of Vignettes is played for laughs, a little more than halfway through the play the script takes a shocking turn — the only unpredictable moment in the 65 minute show — and describes a cataclysmic accident that forever altered the Baratta family’s cohesion. Like all unexpected deaths, this one has continued to reverberate. What’s more, the traumatic event gives heft to an otherwise lightweight production. Baratta’s description of the impact of this loss is palpable — and affecting. At the same time, when she briefly discusses the long-term impact of her ongoing grief, it sounds more like a New Age self-help manual than a true representation of the sadness she feels.
That said, Vignettes of an I-talian American Girl is well-acted, well-staged, and engaging. Despite several rough transitions and a few unnecessary moments of pop psychologizing, it succeeds in evoking the ups and downs of one first-generation daughter. An entertaining and at times moving chronicle, Vignettes reminds us that barriers to assimilation come from both within and without. What’s more, while Vignettes never directly confronts discrimination against Italian Americans, it nonetheless contests the dominant and simplistic portrayal popularized by The Sopranos and other media.
(Vignettes of an I-talian American Girl! plays at The Kraine Theatre, 85 East 4th Street, through August 25, 2011. Remaining performance is Thursday, August 25th at 5PM. Tickets are $15 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more show info visit maria-baratta.com. For more info about FringeNYC visit fringnyc.org.)