Love lies at the heart of the play “Burning Patience” (“Ardiente Paciencia”), currently at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. It is the love of the young, smitten mailman Mario for young Beatriz, Beatriz’s mother for her daughter, and very much the loving bond of friendship between the fictional Mario and real-life Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
The play is set in Isla Negra, a sleepy town on the coastline of Chile. The evocative, blue vista of the ocean scenery, designed by Sean Roach, divides the spaces for Neruda’s abode stage right, and that of the inn run by Rosa, where she and her daughter live, stage left.
The performance opens with Mario (earnestly played by Erik Robles) bounding into the space to deliver the post to the famous Neruda (open-heartedly played by Lawrence Redmond). The gentle friendship between the older, worldly poet and the naive young man is immediately obvious. The talk turns to poetry, specifically metaphors, which Neruda must explain, but Mario soon catches on to. In fact, when Mario meets Beatriz, he implores the poet to help express his love through poetry.
As it turns out, metaphors play an important symbolic role throughout the story. There is Mario’s free borrowing of Neruda’s metaphors when wooing Beatriz (played with both virginal naivete and simultaneous sensuality by Bella Campos). While he doesn’t give Neruda attribution for his seductive words, eventually Mario becomes a poet in his own right.
There is a humorous scene in which Rosa (aptly played by Claudia Quesada) interrogates Beatriz about Mario’s metaphors, losing her mind in trying to convince her daughter that the boy is only after one thing. Rosa, concerned because Mario has no prospects, repeatedly warns Beatriz where mere words might land her, alluding to knowing the power of poetry to move hearts. Rosa writes to Neruda to warn him that Mario is stealing his words, and refuses to allow the young suitor to see Beatriz. Once again, Mario pleads for Neruda’s help.
Of course, metaphors abound in Neruda’s poetry, which is deftly interwoven throughout the narrative. Neruda, who wrote in a variety of styles, is perhaps best remembered for his passionate love poems. While he plays a part in the couple’s courtship, we learn about his real life as well, including his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971, brief run for president before he threw his support behind Salvador Allende, diplomatic position in Paris — and, eventually, the danger he faced when Augusto Pinochet led a coup d’état in 1973. Finally, the play closes with what can perhaps be seen as a sort of metaphor for the sudden transformation of Chile’s immediate future.
Director Olga Sanchez speaks about the title’s term “burning patience,” which comes from Neruda’s 1971 Nobel prizewinning speech when Allende was president. She explains that in it, Neruda spoke about how life is challenging, Chile is still not perfect, and we still have a long way to go to be the humanity we want to be. But he believed the country had the potential to live up to this ideal, but we all need to approach life with a “burning patience.” The end of Neruda’s actual speech is in the play, and the character rings out his words:
“In conclusion, I would like to say to all people of goodwill, the workers, and poets, that the hope of civilization was expressed in these lines by Rimbaud: Only with a burning patience can we conquer that spectacular city which will give light, justice, and dignity for all mankind. Remembering this, poetry will not be sung in vain.”
The playwright Antonio Skármeta originally wrote “Burning Patience” as a novel in 1987, and it was adapted for the screen twice, including as the Italian film “Il Postino” (“The Postman”) in 1995. Sanchez shares that given that Skármeta wrote it almost 10 years after Pinochet’s coup, he too is saying that, just as Neruda had insisted, we have to hold on. We will get past this … and indeed Chile eventually does.
“I couldn’t be happier. I am here at a place where I cut my teeth as an actor in the late 1980s,” Sanchez said about directing “Burning Patience” at the Playhouse. Moving about during her career, she is now back on the East Coast, and reached out to Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse artistic and executive director MJ Bruder Munafo, saying that if she ever needed a director, she would love to come back to do it. Bruder Munafo was pleased, and asked for a few suggestions. Sanchez says, “My focus, what I’ve been doing the last 20 years, is Latinx theater. She picked ‘Burning Patience,’ which is a favorite of mine. It’s been nothing but serendipitous and amazing. This is my first time directing on the main stage here, and that’s very special for me. There is a lot of meaning to this particular show, and it feels very blessed.”
Ultimately, what Sanchez wants audiences to walk away with from the performance is “the power of the arts and the way they help us through both happiness and challenges.”
“Burning Patience” (“Ardiente Paciencia”), at the M.V. Playhouse through Sept. 17. For tickets and more information, see mvplayhouse.org/theater/2022/08/burning-patience.