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The tragic hero of Barranca Abajo, a dignified gaucho who can’t quite come to grips with the unforgiving momentum of social change, pays for his old-fashioned idealism by losing his ranch, his favorite child, his family’s loyalty, and eventually his dignity. Don Zoilo is a romantic traditionalist who deals in his stubborn, prideful, honorable way with cattle-killing plagues, a looming winter, a consumptive daughter, and an arrogant young climber who steals both his family home and his other daughter’s affections. At Gala Hispanic Theatre, though, it’s the audience that gets the really raw deal.

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The unwieldy script and the inept production—which looks, with Luis Caram’s stolid realist set and Alessandra D’Ovidio’s tatty costumes, as though it might well have been mounted sometime shortly after the play’s 1905 premiere and hauled out of mothballs for Gala’s revival—both shoulder some of the blame: Despite Gala’s respectful program notes, which give playwright Florencio Sánchez his due as a pioneer of modern Argentine theater, Barranca Abajo is a stilted, dated piece of dramatism. It’s a landmark play that schoolkids in Buenos Aires are still required to study—”when they’ve been really bad,” according to a native Argentinean friend who’s therefore probably intimately familiar with it—but historically important works don’t always remain stageworthy, and this one probably shouldn’t be revived except as a vehicle for a genuinely stellar cast.

And “stellar” isn’t the adjective for Gala’s lineup, despite the presence of intriguingly sexy company regular Lorena Sabogal as the old man’s willful daughter Prudencia. Luis Manrique summons the odd moment of pathos as Don Zoilo, but mostly he’s such an inscrutable stiff that it’s hard to summon much sympathy for his plight, even when Sánchez sends him off to his death at the end. (Oh, please, what did you expect?)

As his migraine-afflicted, marginally competent wife, Doña Dolores, Beatriz Mayoral dithers and moans rather too energetically, and Elba Laino, who delivers one redeeming moment of grotesque humor when a suitor comes a-calling on her shrewish Rudecinda, is otherwise painfully shrill. Come to think of it, all of the female characters are a bit loud, even the ironically named invalid Robustiana (understudy Lucrecia Basualdo, standing in for Soledad Campos last Friday)—though next to Ediza Vega, who in tinker’s rags and tooth-black plays a kind of demented, cackling Ethel to the collective Lucy of Zoilo’s womenfolk, all the others seem relatively sedate. Still, when they gather to bicker over the grinding of corn or the making of a skirt, the noise is pretty grating.

So is the utterly banal English translation, a cliché-packed syntactical hash courtesy of Egla Morales Blouin, delivered via radio headset and sounding like a dramatic reading of those Hong Kong action-flick subtitles. My Spanish-speaking seatmate complained at intermission about the actors’ inconsistent attempts at Argentinean accents—it was as if actors from South Boston, South Jersey, and South Carolina were playing Shaw without trying to conceal their roots, she said—but at least she didn’t have to listen to such lines as “It doesn’t pay to hassle the higher-ups” and “When he aims to put an end to such a mucky life…”

And “Go on, child, ’cause I’ve got my good friend with me, and he’s dyin’ to beat some tail.” This last is a loving reference to one sturdy fellow’s trusty whip, employed to keep the womenfolk in order. (Hey, nobody said Sánchez was the forward-looking sort. Still, if we’re going to talk about wife-beating, I’d rather have Noel Coward’s “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs,” the tone of which probably bears as much resemblance to Sánchez’s original as Blouin’s version does.)

Ricardo Salim doesn’t so much direct his players as herd them, and he doesn’t quite seem to agree with the playwright’s notion that Robustiana is one of the characters the audience should identify with: Basualdo’s line readings (and the whiny tone of both translation and the translators’ delivery) seem calculated to alienate rather than ingratiate. Even the lighting scheme, an ill-considered and intrusive design by the usually competent Ayun Fedorcha, seems intended to annoy and distract. Some scenes play in murky twilight for no apparent reason; a sunset is too abrupt and too obvious a metaphor; cues are missed or jumped with regrettable regularity. It’s all enough to make you wonder how Gala survives.

Lost amid all this mess are worthy performances from Sabogal, who makes poutiness almost attractive, and the restrained, handsome Luis Caram as Aniceto, Robustiana’s shuffling swain and the only really decent character in the entire play. It’s Aniceto’s outrage over Zoilo’s fate, as much as any protest on Zoilo’s own part, that drives the play’s message home, and it’s his desperate grief at the old man’s obvious suicidal intention that gives the closing moments what weight they have. It’s a pity the rest of the play—and the rest of Gala’s production—doesn’t have that kind of grace.CP