‘Sanctuary City’ at Arena Stage puts human faces to immigrants’ strife



For the first half of “Sanctuary City,” Martyna Majok’s emotionally charged barnburner now at Arena Stage, a pair of young immigrants navigate the margins of an unwelcoming America in time-hopping flashes of ambition and disaffection. But it’s when the play slows down for its more conventional second half that the devastation truly sinks in, as these “dreamers” wake up to the despair of living in a country that largely wants to reject their existence.

Speaking to the ubiquity of these characters’ struggles, the teenage protagonists are never referred to by name and simply labeled in the playbill as B (Hernán Angulo) and G (María Victoria Martínez). Staged in association with California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which mounted a production with the same cast and creative team this past summer, “Sanctuary City” hums along as a two-hander about how divergent paths can strain even the tightest of bonds. All the while, Majok — the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for “Cost of Living” — is careful not to bludgeon her audience with the sociopolitical weight of the early-2000s-set play.

Angulo delivers a smartly interior performance as B, the sheepish son of an immigrant mother who brought her child to the United States, overstayed her visa and built a life in Newark. Martínez is feistier as G, a fellow undocumented immigrant with a tendency to show up on B’s fire escape, seeking refuge from her abusive stepfather. With the aid of Cha See’s eye-popping lighting, sound designer Fan Zhang’s bass-heavy scene transitions and the actors’ nimble performances, director David Mendizábal does well to communicate the dizzying barrage of flashbacks and flashforwards that define the first hour. (Associate director Cara Hinh oversaw the production’s transfer to Arena Stage.)

As a puzzle-box narrative device, the nonlinear vignettes — which range from mere seconds to a few minutes — can play as unnecessarily busy. But they’re also used to potent effect, particularly when portraying the cyclical nature of the violence in G’s household or providing well-placed jolts of comic relief.

Although “Sanctuary City” runs without an intermission, there’s a change in rhythm when it jumps three-plus years to December 2006 and the characters’ early 20s. From that point, the play settles in as a real-time chamber piece set against David Israel Reynoso’s grimy garden apartment set, complete with poorly plastered walls and broken blinds. As B and G consider a scheme that would free them from certain societal trapping but imprison them in new ways altogether, the forceful Kim Fischer drops in as an incredulous third character who threatens to drive a wedge between them.

Martínez’s radiance carries much of “Sanctuary City,” but it’s Angulo’s B who eventually emerges as the core of this compassionate tale. Recalling a trip to visit G at college, B unravels during a poignant monologue in which he articulates the pain of glimpsing a better life that remains out of reach. Digging deep, Angulo sharply portrays the suffering that comes with concealing one’s true self.

It’s to Majok’s credit that the central relationship is strong enough that the broader barriers these characters must traverse — of xenophobia, classism and American bureaucracy — often read more like accessories than the story’s foundation. But by the end, “Sanctuary City’s” blueprint is clear: Majok is here to comment on undocumented immigrants’ strife, and put human faces to the ways in which the American Dream can slip into a nightmare.

Sanctuary City, by Martyna Majok. Directed by David Mendizábal. Transfer direction by Cara Hinh. Sets and costumes, David Israel Reynoso; lighting, Cha See; sound, Fan Zhang. About 1 hour 45 minutes. $56-$95. Through Nov. 27 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.

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