Linda Lopez, David DeSantos, and Valente Rodriguez in The Sweetheart Deal, written and directed by Diane Rodriguez, at Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Linda Lopez, David DeSantos, and Valente Rodriguez in The Sweetheart Deal, written and directed by Diane Rodriguez, at Los Angeles Theatre Center.
(© Grettel Cortes Photography)

As desperately as this country may currently need outrage and activism, Diane Rodriguez's play The Sweetheart Deal – about the struggles of the United Farm Workers in 1970 — burns gently rather than with uncontrollable rage. Sweetheart's world premiere production, directed by the playwright at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, is a small, personal play that could benefit from feeling larger, grittier, and more momentous.

At various points, the audience hears the words of labor leader Cesar Chavez in an effort to imagine what it might have been like to hand our life over to a cause that is greater than a comfortable middle-class existence. But the subject of Rodriguez's tale isn't so much Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong, or the workers who brought growers to their knees in central California; rather, it's the volunteers who joined the crusade. In this case, Will (Geoff Rivas) and Mari (Ruth Livier), a husband and wife who left the Central Valley years ago for a cushier life in San Jose, return to Delano to work for the UFW's underground newspaper, El Macriado.

The paper is a scrappy little rag run by Chon (Valente Rodriguez) and Lettie (Linda Lopez), a couple of activist worker bees who run the newspaper and use the publication to aid the cause.

Will and Mari's decision to support the farm workers becomes complicated once Mari learns that part of the reason she has been recruited is to cozy up to her estranged brother Mac (David Desantos), whose branch of the teamsters has struck a shady "sweetheart deal" with the bosses, thereby undercutting the U.F.W. In this uncomfortable scenario, the personal is destined to become political very quickly, and Mari discovers a part of herself that she didn't previously know even existed. Eventually, her partners in the resistance pay Mari the ultimate compliment. "You're an organizer," her husband says. "You're brave. You speak the truth."

Rodriguez brackets the narrative with a series of four "Actos," short political Brechtian skits that the characters perform wearing commedia masks and signs that brand them as "Boss," "Sweetheart," or "Scab." These cleverly melodramatic mini-scenes help bring the audience up to speed on some of the issues of the play and make for entertaining, participatory rabble-rousing. They also help fill out what would otherwise be a quick 90-minute evening.

Efren Delgadillo's handsome and versatile set is stacked high with old desks that form a sort of embankment while the upper walls house period-specific projections and cartoons designed by Yee Eun Nam.

Livier makes Mari quietly heroic, a woman who takes a stand and has to live with some fairly drastic sacrifices. The play is careful not to make her too much of a princess so that when she is wearing the poncho with the U.F.W. emblem and delivering benedictions on the value of volunteering, the transformation feels honest and earned. Life in the trenches likely wasn't easy for women in the farm-workers movement in the 1970s. As Mari's influence grows, and Will sees his own contributions become less significant, resentment doesn't become an issue. We are meant to see Will and Mari's partnership as strong.

Livier's scenes with Desantos as Mac carry a certain tension; you believe there's baggage and unhealed wounds between the sister who made it out and the brother who stayed put. No such friction exists between Mac and Will who slip back into an amicable dynamic. Lopez injects a refreshing bit of wryness into the proceedings as the seen-it-all organizer, Lettie.

Ultimately, it's Mari, Will, and a team of blue-collar workers against a big bad world. It's a pity The Sweetheart Deal doesn't invest us with greater emotion.