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Stranger things

What if the person you love—the one you want to spend the rest of your life with—were to confess a secret so bizarre, so disturbing, that it makes you question whether you know them at all? How do you truly accept every part of a person when you can’t begin to understand one of their most deeply held beliefs? 

Such questions are at the heart of Enough to Let the Light In, a world premiere psychological thriller by Mexican American playwright Paloma Nozicka, produced by Teatro Vista and copresented at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theater. Director Georgette Verdin and the two costars skillfully balance suspenseful staging, complete with some hair-raising jump scares, and the raw emotions of a relationship under immense strain. 

Enough to Let the Light In
Through 10/23: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Steppenwolf 1700 Theater, 1700 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $25-$45. Presented as part of the fifth annual Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theater Festival; see clata.org or destinosfest.org for festival schedule.

Melissa DuPrey (Dr. Sara Ortiz on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy) and Lisandra Tena (Lola Guerrero on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead) play Marc and Cynthia, two women who have been together for only eight months but are ready to commit to each other for good. Marc has a successful therapy practice, and Cynthia is an artist who used to paint professionally but now works in retail at an art supply store. On the night when we meet the two lovers, Cynthia invites Marc to stay over at her house for the first time. Indeed, she has never even let her partner set foot past her front door—an early revelation that immediately raises questions, given the evident intimacy between the two.

The show maintains a lighthearted tone at first as Marc and Cynthia settle in for a happy evening together. DuPrey and Tena share a playful, sweet chemistry, but their lively banter is soon underscored by foreboding hints at what’s ahead. Cynthia acts strangely territorial about a certain closet door, insisting that Marc hang her coat elsewhere and that the door remain slightly ajar, laughing off these demands by saying she’s a bit OCD. 

We also glimpse another odd habit of Cynthia’s: pouring out a bowl of dry cereal and leaving it in the living room. Later, when Cynthia is alone in the room, she whispers a spine-chilling question, “Are you there?” into the dark closet. The house itself seems as jumpy as its owner—doors open on their own, a painting repeatedly falls off the wall, and mysterious sounds cause you to tune in closely to any ambient noise in the theater, wondering if it’s part of the show. 

When Cynthia suggests a game of Two Truths and a Lie, secrets slowly begin to come to light. It would be a shame to reveal too many plot points, so I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum. We learn that Cynthia had a previous marriage and a child before meeting Marc and that her family was torn apart by a terrible tragedy. While this news is shocking to Marc, it pales in comparison to Cynthia’s next confession: she claims to know why the house seems haunted, and her explanation shakes Marc to the core. As a good therapist, Marc insists that she would never use the term “crazy,” but her professional instincts kick in as she realizes that her partner is traumatized and needs help. 

Under Verdin’s direction, the pacing of this production is exceptionally well done. The comfortable normality of the early scenes is punctuated with enough unsettling notes to keep the viewer on edge. Tena is quite effective in her delivery of Cynthia’s bombshell revelations, and the action gradually builds to a climax that justifies the moniker of “thriller.” The quality work of the creative team, especially the scenic design by Sotirios Livaditis and sound design by Stefanie M. Senior, is key to the success of the jump scares. 

While it’s certainly thrilling, the psychological aspects of this psychological thriller are equally as compelling. Cynthia bares her soul about what motherhood has cost her, especially as someone who didn’t want children in the first place. Despite her love for her child, the loss of her previous life as a promising young artist—and the attendant loss of her sense of self—led her to dark places. For readers of Toni Morrison, there are distinct echoes of Beloved, particularly in the haunted house trope and its connection to maternal guilt. 

For Marc, the evening’s events provide a harrowing test of her love for Cynthia and her commitment to this relatively new relationship. When her partner asks her to believe something that defies reason, Marc is torn between logic and love. Complicating matters, Cynthia raises the point that Marc herself, a regular churchgoer, believes in an unseen God and still talks to her late father. How is this different from Cynthia’s extraordinary claims? Marc struggles to come up with a good response.  

The play ends ambiguously, leaving room for speculation about what’s really going on in this creepy old house and how these two women will navigate their future together (or not). None of the questions it raises are tied up with a neat bow, but this feels like an honest approach. Everyone brings baggage to a relationship, if not secrets as strange as Cynthia’s, and it would feel contrived to end with pat answers here. No one would wish to have their relationship stress-tested in such an extreme manner, but the show prompts reflection on what it means to accept someone’s whole self when you love them. 

A final note: Enough to Let the Light In is part of the fifth Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. With 13 productions across Chicago and Aurora, the festival runs through mid-October (some shows continue into November), and showcases new works by Latino theater artists and companies from Chicago, the U.S., and Latin America. This year’s festival and Teatro Vista’s production are both dedicated to the late Myrna Salazar, cofounder and executive director of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, the organization that coproduces Destinos along with the National Museum of Mexican Art, the International Latino Cultural Center, and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance.

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