At New Village Arts, 'Guadalupe' a gently affecting glimpse of grief and moving on

Spanish-language telenovelas — those pulpy soap operas that play out like romance-novel cover shots come to life — are clearly not the subtlest of entertainment forms.

But in Tony Meneses’ gently affecting play “Guadalupe in the Guest Room,” they make for an inspired contrast to the quiet, internalized agonies the main characters confront.

And because this is also a story about barriers of communication and of pent-up emotion, the telenovela vignettes — staged with winning wit in New Village Arts’ West Coast premiere of the piece — serve as guideposts to transcending language gaps and letting unexpressed feelings fly.

At NVA, the more realistic moments prove a little trickier to pull off than the TV-show segments: There’s an occasional sense of the tentative as well as a tendency at times to play to situation rather than character (as in a scene where a cast member overemphasizes her skepticism about a restaurant she’s been taken to).

On opening night there was also a sense that a little more rehearsal time — always a precious commodity, especially for small theaters — might’ve helped smooth some snags.

The good news is that this production stands to get stronger as the run goes on. The better news is in witnessing the sense of humanity and humor that Nadia Guevara, NVA’s associate artistic chief, brings to the piece in her mainstage directing debut.

“Guadalupe” is part of the theater’s Latinx-centered Teatro Pueblo Nuevo initiative, which Guevara founded and leads, and Meneses’ play showcases the director’s promise as a teller of worthy and lyrical stage stories.

Although the story in “Guadalupe” is a straightforward one, it can take a little time to get used to how people communicate in the piece; some conversations in English are meant to be understood as unfolding in Spanish, for example.

Guadalupe (an appealingly low-key Gabriela Nelson) is a mom from Mexico who is staying temporarily at the Boston home of her son-in-law, Steve (Tom Steward). As we gradually learn, they’re both coping with grief over the recent passing of Claudia, Guadalupe’s daughter and Steve’s wife.

In search of some closure, Guadalupe is helping Claudia’s fellow Spanish teacher, Raquel (Ciarlene Coleman), translate a series of children’s books Claudia had written.

At the same time, Roberto (Daniel Novoa), a friendly gardener whom Steve hired, has begun gently romancing Guadalupe.

Guadalupe knows little English and Steve doesn’t speak Spanish; adding to that obstacle between them is Steve’s passive/aggressive way of dealing with Guadalupe’s continued presence, a proxy for his inability to come to grips with his wife’s death. (Steward does well at the sometimes difficult task of making this tantrum-prone character sympathetic.)

What the two share is a devotion to “Love is Never Forgotten,” a telenovela that’s in its own way about love and death and everything Guadalupe and Steve are confronting.

As they watch, segments from the show spring to life onstage, complete with amusingly splashy costumes (by Carmen Amon) and lurid lighting (Curtis Mueller) on Tanya Orellana’s graceful set.

Novoa and Coleman play those scenes to comic perfection: Coleman is particularly adept at the smoldering looks and exaggerated flourishes of movement that help define the genre.

And when Steve and Guadalupe finally get through to each other in one dreamlike sequence after the TV show’s poignant finale, it might make you believe in the power of a little melodrama — whatever the tongue.

‘Guadalupe in the Guest Room’

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 28.

Where: New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St., Carlsbad.

Tickets: $33-$36 (discounts available)

Phone: (760) 433-3245

Online: newvillagearts.org.

jim.hebert@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @jimhebert

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