How much privacy will the beleaguered Vega clan, a working-class Mexican American family with deep Texas roots, sacrifice for the sake of a home renovation?
That seems to be the main question animating Makasha Copeland’s Extreme Home Makeover, Theatre Exile’s first live, indoor production since March 2020, and the kickoff of its 25th anniversary season.
The polished Exile staging is the world premiere of this high-concept piece, consisting of a series of takes before a camera to audition for the titular ABC reality television show. Deborah Block, the theater’s producing artistic director, has assembled a strong cast that captures both the play’s intermittent humor and its pathos.
Colin McIlvaine’s set, depicting the home’s warmth and decrepitude, establishes the stakes. And sound designer Mark Valenzuela and lighting designer Drew Billiau conjure the video effects, as well as the crack in the house that symbolizes the family’s troubles.
But none of this is quite enough to keep the evening — even at 85 intermission-less minutes — from dragging, or the play from feeling unfinished.
On the plus side, the Texas-born Copeland knows the milieu and has created vivid characters.
Valentina (Jessy Gruver, in a poignant performance) does child care, cleans houses, and tries to hold her own family together. Descended from generations of ranch hands, she is a fan of the reality show.
“Seeing how you come into families’ lives and transform their circumstances is the spark that keeps me going!” she tells the camera. “We are people with drive and ambition to overcome adversity! Your help could guide us to achieve even bigger dreams!”
Valentina’s mother, Guadalupe (Yajaira Paredes), plagued by breathing issues, is candid and cantankerous — and skeptical, in both English and Spanish, of the audition enterprise. Winning, she warns, would mean airing all the family’s tribulations on TV.
Then there are the kids, played by adult actors. Marco (Angel Sigala), at 16, is an aspiring zoologist, wildlife biologist, or wildlife conservationist — he isn’t quite sure what to call it. He just knows he loves observing the lizards and ants that have invaded the house.
He’s a charmer, as is Lupe (Krystal Rosa), his sister, even if some of the charm is performative. Lupe is only 10, but limber, precocious, and intent on fixing the home’s damaged pipes, though she may have to knock down a wall to do it.
There is some shape and progression to Copeland’s narrative. Over time, we learn that the family’s financial difficulties have been exacerbated by the death of Valentina’s handyman husband, David. The mood darkens. We observe the characters wrestling, in different ways, with their grief and regret.
But the device of having each family member in turn address ABC and entreat the network’s help grows tiresome. The emotional tug of the situation doesn’t build to any resolution. Extreme Home Makeover doesn’t so much end as peter out, leaving both the family and the audience hanging.
“Extreme Home Makeover” is presented by Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., through Nov. 21. Proof of vaccination, photo ID, and mask required. Tickets $10-$35. Information: theatreexile.org or 215-218-4022.