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The Seattle actor’s “I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” captures what it’s like to be a teenager

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Theater review

Julia’s older sister Olga is obedient, good-natured and deadpan.

As the younger sister, it can be difficult to live up to the parental expectations set by the eldest — and it doesn’t get any easier when the object of comparison is forever frozen in time, immortalized as a perfect child.

The Seattle Rep’s production of I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter features Isaac Gomez’s theatrical version of Erica L. Sanchez’s novel for young adults, an adaptation that can feel unproductive of the novel’s incident-filled structure. (Maybe a movie adaptation directed by America Ferrera will break the mold a bit more.)

But with direction from Juliette Carrillo, the actor’s production stunningly captures the world-terrifying emotional impacts of being a teen–and not just those of sudden tragedy. Setting out with scenes set on an open space with two revolving discs, Carrillo is less interested in landing lucid dramatic beats than delving into the inner life of the show’s spiky but charming protagonist.

15-year-old Julia (Karen Rodriguez) has always been the black sheep of her immigrant family in Chicago. Julia, a David Bowie-loving aspiring writer with a burgeoning streak of misanthropy, feels hopelessly ill-equipped to please her strict mother (Jazmine Corona) and staid father (Eddie Martinez). And when the firstborn, Olga (Sofia Raquel Sanchez), is killed in a car accident, feelings of guilt and inadequacy run rampant.

Seen through Julia’s eyes, Olga is nothing more than a blade. As the play opens, she lies quietly in a coffin, but Julia swears Olga has a smirk on her face. We see what we want to see.

Julia discovers that this may be true of everyone who thought Olga was the golden child. As she spends time in her dead sister’s bedroom, hoping to find some connections that weren’t really there in life, she stumbles upon some clues to a possible secret Olga has been hiding.

The ensuing detective story feels like the typical machinations of a frantic, underdeveloped YA plot, but it’s only nominally the drive for “I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” which crosses many roads in Júlia’s journey of self-discovery.

There’s the sometimes tempestuous relationship with her friends Lorena (Leslie Sofia Perez) and Guangja (Marco Antonio Tzonox), an affirmation from her well-meaning if misguided English teacher (Aaron Blakely) and of course a first love story with Connor (Michael Monicatti), a rich white kid. from the suburbs. Topics related to self-harm, domestic violence, homophobia, casual racism, and even cartel violence are examined in sufficiently varying degrees.

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Nevertheless, this is a remarkably coherent and purposeful piece of work, thanks in large part to Rodriguez’s performance, who guides us through the sexy, awkward, and wounded sides of Julia’s character with copious, sympathy-generating care. Adults playing teens can be deceitful, but Rodriguez, who created the role in the world premiere production of Steppenwolf in 2020, didn’t wink once. Julia is a fully realized human being in all her confusing adulthood shenanigans.

It also doesn’t hurt that this is a pretty good-looking production, with the tone set by the breathtaking designer Efren Delgadillo Jr. A mural by Chicago artist Cintruck appears on a massive bamboo curtain surrounding the stage. Depicting a bird with mosaic-like wings, it evokes anticipation for a sense of freedom it is not clear Julia will achieve. And lighting design by Robert J. Aguilar and sound design by John Nobori amplify Julia’s mood, particularly in recurring sequences that float between dream and nightmare.

Carrillo’s control of mood persists throughout “I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” making it easy to overlook gimmicky plot threads. In the end, staging cuts to the heart of an adolescent’s simultaneous need for approval and self-actualization, and the result is undeniably poignant.

“I’m not your perfect Mexican daughter.”

Written by Isaac Gomez, based on the novel by Erica L. Sanchez. through February 5; Seattle Rep, 155 Mercer Street, Seattle; $23 – $95; 206-443-2222; seattlerep.org