“The Happiest Song Plays Last,” now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Thomas Theatre, is part three of a trilogy by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Last year the Festival presented part two, “Water by the Spoonful,” directed, like this play, by Shishir Kurup.
The author, inspired by her cousin Elliot, the youngest Marine to be deployed to Iraq, has stitched his story to others, creating a colorful quilt of present-day issues.
Focusing on Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia, as well as a homeless man, a part-Arab actress who doesn’t understand her roots, and a displaced Iraqi without papers, the play stresses the benefits of diverse communities.
Elliot, played with great sympathy by Daniel Duque-Estrada, is dealing with PTSD as he pursues a post-military career in film. When he is cast as a soldier in a movie being made in Jordan, he reawakens a terrible memory he must strive to put to rest.
Elliot’s cousin Yaz is a young music professor who has become the family matriarch, as well as an activist and caregiver to an impoverished community. The weight of responsibility is clearly too much for one person, but even so, she considers having a child with an older activist, almost more to make him happy than to satisfy a personal need.
It is 2012, during the so-called Arab Spring. Masses of demonstrators in several Arab countries are demanding democracy, while in America anti-immigrant sentiments run hot and the Recession continues.
Still, the play offers hope in the form of poignant Puerto Rican songs sung by Augustin, the hard-drinking activist portrayed by Armando Duran. Musician Joe Cruz expertly accompanies him, but at least one song could be shortened.
Nancy Rodriguez as Yaz is brimming with emotions, sometimes radiant, sometimes shrill in her public speeches. Barzin Akhavan is fascinating as the anxious displaced Iraqi. Tala Ashe is compelling as the actress, and Bruce Young creates a touching homeless man.
The author drives these characters through dark times, but the title of the play reassures us that most of them will move toward the light.