IN reviewing the ebullient play “Kita y Fernanda” in 2008, a Chicago critic called its young author, Tanya Saracho, “the Chicana Chekhov” for her deft blend of comedy and drama. It’s hardly surprising, then, that her loose adaptation of Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” titled “El Nogalar,” is set against the bloody backdrop of Mexico’s drug wars.
But the story behind Ms. Saracho’s rise from scrappy storefront theaters to national stature is, like the playwright herself, more complicated than that clever, alliterative epithet would suggest.
For starters, though Ms. Saracho happily accepted the Chekhov comparison, she doesn’t identify as Chicana — a self-assigned term associated with a particular West Coast Mexican-American sensibility. She doesn’t even consider herself Mexican-American. A native of the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa and raised mostly in the border towns of Reynosa, Mexico, and McAllen, Tex., Ms. Saracho, 34, is a green-card-carrying Mexican citizen living in the United States still torn about joining the country she’s called home since 1989.
Her long-standing ambivalence isn’t just a matter of paperwork; literal and figurative borders fire Ms. Saracho’s best writing. The title characters of the autobiographical “Kita y Fernanda” are the daughters of the live-in maid and the woman of the house, respectively, who grow up together over treacherous fault lines of class and language. In 2009’s “Our Lady of the Underpass” Ms. Saracho turned a series of interviews with a diverse group of Chicagoans into a suite of monologues about an image of the Virgin Mary allegedly sighted on a concrete wall under the Kennedy Expressway.
And in “El Nogalar,” which translates as “The Pecan Orchard,” Ms. Saracho has set Chekhov’s final play amid the violence that has enveloped Mexico’s northern states.
“Every time we go home, it’s all we talk about, because it’s all there is,” Ms. Saracho said. “Right now we’re held hostage by this thing. It’s so complicated that it has no name, but we all know what we’re talking about.”
The adaptation came about in part because the Latino theater company Teatro Vista was looking for classics to adapt with a Latino spin — and partly because Ms. Saracho has a big mouth.
She was talking at a cocktail party, “and I was like, ‘The most Latino playwright I encountered in college was Chekhov,’ and then someone took me up on it,” said Ms. Saracho, whose conversation spills out in digressive torrents that might brand her as a fresa, the Mexican version of a Valley Girl, but for the heady subject matter.
According to Cecilie Keenan, who is directed the world premiere at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, what links “The Cherry Orchard” to “El Nogalar” is the jarring spectacle of reverse migration.
“I asked Tanya: ‘What about the fact that our economy’s kind of tanking now? Aren’t rich Mexicans going back home because there’s nothing to do here?’ ” Ms. Keenan said. “And she was like, ‘You know, they are.’ ” So the return of Chekhov’s debt-ridden Madame Ranevsky from Paris to her soon-to-be-auctioned Russian estate becomes, in Ms. Saracho’s play, the story of Señora Maite, alighting obliviously at her family home in northeastern Mexico, where nothing so gentle as an auction threatens the property.
In Ms. Saracho’s compressed time frame the local drug mafia steadily tightens its grip over a few urgent days, compared with the fateful ebbing summer of “The Cherry Orchard.” And, in a marked departure from Chekhov’s famous dictum that a gun shown in a play’s first act must be fired in the second, “El Nogalar” features this sassy stage direction: “Lopez goes for his piece. Yes, old boy is packing, O.K.? But just don’t make a big deal out of it ever. This is just what the men do now.”
Like many young theater artists Ms. Saracho moved to Chicago for its reputation as a no-nonsense stage town and helped form a small company, Teatro Luna, to create work — in her case, frank, funny monologues inspired by her own experiences. But her ambition and achievement quickly outpaced the solo format. The way she tells it, she was plucked from a happy fringe career by the city’s larger institutions; the way others tell it, her potential practically forced them to act.
“She’s the first really viable local Latino playwright we’ve had,” said Henry Godinez, a co-founder of Teatro Vista, who joined the Goodman’s artistic staff in 1996 and has remained a bridge between the two companies. In 2008, with the encouragement of mentors like Mr. Godinez, Ms. Saracho had assignments from Chicago’s two biggest theaters: “Our Lady of the Underpass,” which the Goodman commissioned and Teatro Vista produced, and an adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’s “House on Mango Street” for Steppenwolf TheaterCompany.
With these gains in profile came some wrenching transitions. She quit Teatro Luna a year ago, a decision that still clearly pains her. And she’s now working on plays that will feature no Latino characters: a commission from About Face, Chicago’s gay-oriented theater, for a play about the transgender Civil War soldier Albert Cashier, for which Ms. Saracho received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a commission from Steppenwolf to write a play for its mostly white acting ensemble.
Tanya Saracho and playwright Luis Alfaro, serving as dramaturg on the Fountain production.
“Tanya is now facing the idea that she’s going to have a national role,” said Polly Carl, Steppenwolf’s director of artistic development. “She realizes the unfortunate, in a way, responsibility she is taking on. No playwright should have to take on the voice of a people. What we’re telling her is that she can write about anything.”
What Ms. Saracho seems destined to write about, no matter the place, is socioeconomic class. Raised comfortably in an upper-middle-class family, she said she didn’t confront prejudice against Mexicans — or the troubling notion that she was exempt because of her privilege and her fair skin — until she moved to Chicago. In part that’s why Ms. Saracho has beefed up the role of the social-climbing character of Dunyasha in “Cherry Orchard,” renamed Dunia in her play.
“Dunyasha became my obsession,” Ms. Saracho confessed. “Dunyasha wants to be white, and we have that whole race shame in Mexico. You don’t even say it. It just is. When you see who’s serving who, who’s in power, it’s evident. I don’t look at it when I’m down there, but when I look at it with binoculars from up here, I do.”
El Nogalar Fountain Theatre Jan 21-March 11 (323) 663-1525 More Info