When Jose Ruben De Leon first read Rudolfo Anaya’s seminal novel “Bless Me Ultima,” he had no trouble relating to the book’s young protagonist, Antonio. There were similarities between their lives. In the story, Antonio is guided in his quest to understand the world around him by Ultima, an elderly curandera who comes to live with his family. De Leon’s mom was also a curandera or folk healer, who helped people and treated them with respect and dignity. The young Jose had ample opportunity to see her practice her healing art.
“A year after my mother died in 1996, a friend suggested I read ‘Bless Me Ultima,” said De Leon who directed the stage version of “Ultima” currently playing at the Classic Theatre. “Ever since, I pull the book out from time to time and read from any page in it. I relate to Tony. I have a deep connection with this novel.”
Some years ago, De Leon, a gifted playwright and performer, contacted Anaya by phone to see if the author was considering adapting his novel for the stage. Anaya’s own wife, Patricia Lawless, had encouraged her husband to do so before her death in 2010. Though Anaya eventually produced a thespian version of his story, De Leon was no longer able to contact him. He finally got a copy of the script after summoning the help of Sandra Cisneros, another successful author who used to live in San Antonio.
“I got a copy in the mail and here we are!” said De Leon. “This production is the San Antonio premiere of ‘Bless Me Ultima.’ It’s very exciting.”
And challenging. The first challenge was the casting. To handle the 30-plus characters that populate the story, the director had to assign multiple characters to almost every cast member. There was simply no room on the Classic’s stage for that many people. And given the in-the-round stage configuration, he couldn’t project videos of the landscape and towns of New Mexico to help create the right atmosphere. But he was confident that the actors and the audience’s imagination would help the story flow without creating confusion.
So far so good. The initial two performances were greeted by standing ovations, noted De Leon, and people wanted to linger and talk further about the protagonist. The play is essentially a coming-of-age tale centered on Antonio/Tony but also a depiction of Chicano life in a rural New Mexico town in the 1940s, and the changes, conflicts and cultural dichotomies of the rime. When Tony’s mentor, Ultima dies, the boy has to start figuring out his own future.
De Leon praised the performances of the two principals, 14-year-old Andrew Trevino as Antonio, and Marisa Varela as Ultima. The latter actually consulted a real curandera to learn the rituals of her craft.
For those who would like to spend more time in Tony’s company, Anaya’s book will be available for sale in the theater lobby.
For times, tickets and other details, go to classictheatre.org
Phoros by Siggi Ragnar (from top) Marisa Varela, Julio Sepulveda, Andrew Trevino and Carlos Alvarado in “Bless Me Ultima” ; Anna de Luna, Andrew Trevino and Luis Garcia Jr. in “Bless Me Ultima”: