The temptation to make magic out of the Tucson desert is overwhelming for children. So hot it makes you shiver, so dusty and dry it takes a neophyte years to see life there, the saguaro desert is a vast, supernatural garbage dump where things thrown away always come back deformed and blanched out of exposition by the sun.
On the extreme end of this continuum of childish magic would be the true story of a little girl buried alive in a box in the desert for nineteen days. Being a Tucsonan herself, that girl might be forgiven for calmly expecting the desert to eventually give her back; and years later for trying to uncover the secret of her transformation.
This the end of the stick that Octavio Solis gets ahold of in his new play June In A Box. A collaboration with Intersection for the Arts' resident theater company Campo Santo and composer Beth Custer, June In A Box jumps off of a corrido written shortly after the 1934 June Robles kidnapping and takes its cues equally from folk song, sensationalist newspaper reports, and an array of pop culture convergences. It is a classic musical, an oral history, and a fairy tale questioning its own happy ending.
Eighty-one-year-old June (Denise Blasor) is drawn out to the desert one night by a song. She finds two coyotes (Luis Saguar and Mark David Pinate) singing the corrido of June Robles, a six-year-old girl held by kidnappers in an underground box. The coyotes lead June back to her child self (Gracie Solis), still trapped in the box after 75 years, to relive that buried part of her life and, she hopes, finally set the child free.
The production, as one would expect from Campo Santo and Intersection, is simple and effective. The underground box dominates a corrugated metal and wood set hinting at the Depression-era context of the incident. The adult performances are solid, and Mark David Pinate phase-shifts particularly effectively between archetypal coyote, scared kidnapper, and frightened father.
Solis and Custer use the musical numbers to recast the action in pop culture tropes, offering subtext, but not -- as in traditional musicals -- character development. The resulting performance of the nineteen days of captivity recalls Annie (in the child's costume, song and dance, and aggressive innocence), coyote and roadrunner (in a fun song about a jackrabbit), and even Cats (in the canine affect and howling singing of the coyotes). With the exception of a ditty about solitude -- standard to every Broadway musical on the books -- the music is a formally challenging counterpoint to the monologue-heavy dialogue.
But Solis has little time left after the musical numbers to do much more than complete the storytelling. Shifts in perspective across June's family members go a long way towards texturing the chaos of search and investigation, but June's own experience in the box gets short shrift.
At its base, this is still a horror story: a girl is buried alive in the desert for nearly three weeks. What does that do to a child? What does that child come back as? Whether through fairy tale or bleak naturalism, whether from the point of view of the adult or the child victim, the story of June's nineteen days in the box is the story that June In A Box promises -- the compelling, sensational story we expect -- but this is almost the only story the play doesn't deliver.
I found myself wondering if Solis had hobbled himself by casting and directing his own daughter as the young June. That might have been an irresistible incentive to soft-pedal the child's terror and pain. Gracie Solis isn't given much to do here besides assert her childishness (the actor is twelve years old), and whenever the action threatens to investigate her solitary wait underground, the play's attention slides away from June to zero in on another of her tortured, bewildered, or selfish family members.
It's an effective way to tell the tale, but not the story. Because, although it takes on adult voices, June In A Box only makes sense as a story told by a child trying to find magic in the faded image of what the desert gave back. As imaginative and fruitful as this collaboration is -- and it's very enjoyable -- Solis doesn't manage to maintain this frame, or any other, consistently. And our questions about June remain unanswered.
June In A Box runs through March 31, 2008 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit theintersection.org.