<i>Return to Sender</i> Takes on Tough Issues at Nashville Children’s Theatre

Matthew Benenson Cruz, Amanda Rodriguez and Lilliana Gomez in Return to Sender

As adults, we often try to shelter children from life’s harsh realities. But with the world premiere of Return to Sender, Nashville Children’s Theatre takes on tough issues with a focus on empathy and understanding.

Based on the 2009 novel by Julia Alvarez and written by Marisela Treviño Orta, this thoughtful story follows the unlikely friendship between the young son of Vermont farmers and the Mexican-born daughter of undocumented migrant workers. Co-commissioned by NCT and Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies, Return to Sender is the second work to come from the NCT Hatchery — the new works incubator that produced last season’s engaging Ghost.

As with that play, Return to Sender addresses contemporary themes with candor, while maintaining an unmistakable sense of hope and humanity. The work actually takes its name from Operation Return to Sender — a controversial program of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency that started in 2006. The plan was sold to Congress as a way to round up and deport dangerous criminals and terrorists being harbored in the U.S., but ICE officials instead set their sights on easier targets — undocumented people without criminal records and with no deportation orders against them. And it’s worth noting that the play — which touches on the very real dangers facing immigrant communities — is primarily intended for those in grades 3-8. But at its heart, Return to Sender tells a powerful story of friendship, as two young people begin to grapple with the complex challenges of the world around them. 

Director Crystal Manich makes the most of the often episodic script and has gathered a marvelous ensemble of players for this production. Amanda Rodriguez is excellent as Mari, infusing the role with great warmth, even as she reveals her character’s struggles and fears. Lane Williamson also gives a heartfelt performance as Tyler, a young man wrestling with his own worries.  

The supporting cast is just as strong, with a nice mix of new and familiar faces. Cheryl White is particularly effective as Tyler’s loving mother, with Denice Hicks channeling no-nonsense wisdom as Grandma Paquette. And Matthew Martinez Hannon captures the quiet strength and dignity of Mari’s father.

Scenic and lighting designer Scott Leathers has fashioned a beautifully detailed, multilevel set, which ably supports the unfolding action. Maranda DeBusk’s projections help establish each scene while adding a bit of stage magic, and David Weinstein’s evocative sound enhances the story.

Return to Sender offers no easy answers. But it puts a very human face on some complicated issues, reminding us that true friendship knows no borders.

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