There are two Isidores in the Catholic canon of saints: Isidore the Farmer, a simple 12th-century workhand and the patron of farmers and laborers, and Isidore of Seville, a 7th-century scholar who attempted to document the entirety of human knowledge and is patron saint of the Internet. Both Isidores haunt Martín Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun, a moving anti-war polemic now playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which charts the lingering depredations of civil conflict on the dispossessed members of an imagined Latin American village.
The village, San Isidro, is named for the farmer saint. Its people are guileless and humble. When civil war breaks out, the town doctor Moisés (Rey Lucas, whose kind eyes belie a torrent of agony and regret) sneaks medical supplies across enemy lines with the help of priest Eugenio (industry vet Peter Jay Fernandez) so that he and his wife Belén (Flora Diaz) can care for the wounded. In another town, Luis (Sean Carvajal) quits his mining job and enlists in the army to be able to buy his wife Mónica (an elemental Flor De Liz Perez) a washing machine and retire with a pension, right before the war breaks out. The couples’ stories run mostly parallel until, after the war, wallowing in grief, Moisés discovers he is uniquely qualified to heal a plague of boils affecting children, and the couples’ paths intersect.
Like so many plays this year, Seven Spots has become eerily timely in its survey of a society divided. “What if we fight ourselves?” Mónica asks Luis when he enlists, and the question, no longer a hypothetical, reverberates off the stage, through the house, down Rattlestick’s rickety stairs, and out into the streets.
Like Isidore of Seville, Zimmerman tries to create an exhaustive catalog of the ravages of war from an array of perspectives—soldier, healer, commander, victim, perpetrator, home front—which is a tall order for an 85-minute production. War is hell, if you didn’t know it, but Zimmerman has a chronicler’s gift for seeing broadly. He sustains a mostly convincing narrative, with echoes of Gabriel García Márquez, without becoming overwhelmed by its inventory of horrors.
Canadian director Weyni Mengesha, making her New York debut, deserves credit for this tightrope walk as well, having cast the play with a variety of Latin American bodies and accents. Mengesha also meets Zimmerman halfway with an egalitarian staging that allows space for men and women alike to speak, dream, plead, and rage.
The wide representation the play’s creators pursue does carry an inherent risk, though. The program note says that “(T)he play exists in a universal space…. It’s not a single country. It’s not a single war. It’s a tale of many countries and many wars.” Enough Latin American countries have suffered the terrors of civil war, outright war, and military dictatorship, and know all too well how open wounds can fester when atrocities go unanswered, that this premise feels dramatically tenable. As Mónica whispers in sorrow near the end of the play, “No hay palabras”: there are no words.
The trouble is, there’s no such thing as a universal experience of war. To imply a sameness to these incidents erases the extremely personal, local contours of each person’s experience. Try telling a survivor of Argentina’s Dirty War or the dictatorships in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, or Panama (to name just a handful of the most recent) that her wartime struggle harbored universal truths, and she’ll laugh in your face. Yet there is much that unites and sustains Latin American culture; it is these commonalities that Seven Spots on the Sun celebrates, even if it risks constituting a misleadingly monolithic understanding of what it means to be Latin American.
Unfortunately, Zimmerman’s play will continue to be timely. In Venezuela and Syria (and Nigeria and Iraq and Afghanistan and Darfur…), and for many more people within and without our increasingly parochial borders, civil war is more than just a specter. As Seven Spots on the Sun sensitively signals, though, even if conflict officially ends, it never dies; for those who live through it, it's always right now.
The Sol Project’s Seven Spots on the Sun runs through June 4 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, off Seventh Avenue and W. 11th Street). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, visit rattlestick.org.