María Victoria Martínez (G) and Hernán Angulo (B) in the West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, directed by David Mendizábal. Credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

Two unnamed, undocumented young immigrants from undisclosed countries become family to each other in Sanctuary City, Pulitzer Prize-winner Martyna Majok’s unsentimental yet moving drama.

Sanctuary City, Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., through Aug. 14

In late 2001, a high school girl, referred to only as G in the program, needs to escape her abusive father, and so climbs into the apartment window of B, her male classmate (the excellent Hernán Angulo). And soon, G (acted with verve by María Victoria Martínez) spends many nights sleeping beside B in his bed.

Through many fragmented terse scenes performed on an unadorned well-lit stage, we watch the two interact, grow close, and become replacement families for each other. And they share much more than many high-schoolers’ problems. Both have entered the U.S. illegally as children. Their undocumented parents are absent; B’s mother is too busy scraping by with low-end jobs, and G’s mother is fighting off an abusive spouse. Both parents and children live in fear that a minor brush with the law will get them deported. And that’s in Newark, New Jersey, then designated a “sanctuary city.”

First-rate director David Mendizábal builds a complete picture of these DREAMers’ lives on a bare stage set without any props. The scenes come in spurts that are out of sequence. Like typical teenagers, G and B don’t speak in complete sentences. Their monosyllabic “Goodnight,” “Yeah,” and “Sorry” assume different connotations as the context changes. But the duo have grown to understand each other fully, and the audience follows along.

María Victoria Martínez (G). Credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

When their high school years come to a close, G and B’s lives veer in dramatically different directions. Suddenly, and a bit fortunately from a plot standpoint, G has become naturalized, so she can take advantage of a college scholarship. But as a DREAMer without citizenship rights, B has no optimistic future. His mother is returning to their homeland. We feel the weight of B’s sorrow, loneliness and frustration, as does G. Maybe she can help. They hatch a plan.   

Although there is no intermission, the second part of the drama seems like a second act. Time has passed. It’s December 2006, and G is completing college. The short scene-shifting ends, and one long, more narrative conversation ensues. A new character, Henry (well-played by Kim Fischer), becomes the third leg of this now thorny triangle. The unexpected ending revolves around the trio’s difficult choices as they approach adulthood.

Playwright Martyna Majok, with evocative language and creative artistry, presents G and B as whole, fully realized characters who we grow to understand and appreciate. And most importantly, we think about their lives and travails long after the performance ends. Sanctuary City is a play that seeps into one’s soul.

Sanctuary City runs through Aug. 14, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. It’s 105 minutes long, with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing are required. Tickets are $20-$116, and can be purchased online or by phone at 510 647-2949.

Emily S. Mendel

Freelancer Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although now a 37-year East Bay resident), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...