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The mission of Matrix Theatre Company cites building community and fostering social justice among its goals, and both are inherent in its production of Vanished. Comprehensive immigration policy reform holds particular immediacy for the Mexicantown neighborhood in which the company does business, as deportation is a fearsome reality for some undocumented immigrants — and their children. Accordingly, the play was written by a group of area youth enrolled in the Matrix playwriting program, and their passion shines through in the script, as does their fiercely damning view of the present policy and its irrevocable effects.

The collaborative efforts of the teen writers (facilitated by Robert Wotypka and director Laura Perez, with input from local experts) result in a simply told story that avoids out-and-out preaching, despite its clear point of view. The play is about one nuclear family: teenage Gabi and Jesus (Megan Smith and Justino Solis) and their parents, Carina and Hector (Maria Guadalupe Ayala and Benny Cruz). The children are documented; their parents are not. Their fear of government interference alienates Gabi during a class discussion of immigration policy and keeps Carina from seeking medical care for her worsening diabetes. When their parents are apprehended and Hector is deported, Gabi and Jesus are left alone for weeks to fend for themselves and panic about their family's uncertain future. Naturalized US citizens may struggle to comprehend this despondent and bleak reality, but the honesty and relatability of these characters brings sympathy to a population whose illegal status (and the repercussions of revealing it) prevents them from openly engaging in the debate over US immigration.

Given little other information about the characters' lives and relationships, the production takes on a forced perspective: to this family, immigration policy is more than an abstract concept; it supersedes every other aspect of their lives. A few tangential story lines, like the support Gabi receives from her best friend and a lighthearted workplace conversation about the cute new girl, are both a blessing and a distraction, helping to fill the starkness of this world but also standing out against the singular intent of the story.

The production itself is alternately hesitant and powerful. Some low-energy or light moments between major scenes tend to drag, and Perez's actors pull their emotional punches, which avoids over-the-top performances but ultimately feels too safe for the material. The play's best moments occur at the peaks of fear and helplessness — regardless of the program's insistence that all weapons are fake, the entrance of armed, shouting Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers onto the scene effectively registers both shock and horror. Solis's transition from ambitious youth to disproportionately burdened adult stands out as one of the most affecting performances. Matrix newcomer Smith is tasked with carrying emotionally raw scenes and monologues while alone onstage, a tall order for an actor so young. The family's interactions are presented in Spanglish, most of which did not present a barrier to my high school–level Spanish comprehension, although Ayala's speech required substantial concentration for me to understand her in either language. Production elements are stripped almost to the bone: scenic design by Kevin Barron and properties by Stella Woitulewicz are generally limited to representative decor in the intimate space (with just two rows of seating running along three sides of the stage, every seat is close to the action). Similarly, little to no incidental music is an unconventional choice that lends a tone of eerie loneliness, but also demonstrates just how confusing it can be to have no clear signal denoting intermission or play's end.

Overall, the impressive power of the message behind Vanished is not quite matched by its artistic merit. Art can be great, important, or, in rare cases, both; this show is primarily important, a distinction well earned by its matter-of-fact depiction of a shattered family. Scheduled talkbacks and an interactive lobby display, with a timeline of US immigration trends and policies, encourage the viewer not only to ponder the realities that informed this story, but also to talk about the issue and to take action. Perez, and by extension Matrix, hopes to spread awareness to people not directly affected by immigration policy, and the human face put on the issue by Matrix's young playwrights should both evoke sympathy and foster debate in its audiences.


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