JOURNEY OF THE SPARROWS, Lifeline Theatre and Teatro Vista. Although Fran Leeper Buss based her 1991 young-adult novel Journey of the Sparrows on true tales of Mexican and Central American immigrants, the book, like Meryl Friedman's adaptation, is quintessentially American, full of unsullied optimism. Sixteen-year-old Salvadoran refugee Maria is nailed into a crate with her brother, sister, a Mexican boy, and a load of vegetables, then arrives in Chicago to face no end of travails. Yet her unflagging hopefulness - symbolized by her colorful paintings and Buss's barrage of bird, star, and rainbow metaphors - keeps the show bounding forward at a musical-comedy clip.
The prose in Journey is generally artless and schematic (apparently young readers need not develop an appreciation of style), and director Henry Godinez's staging is equally prosaic, at least during the first half, after which the candor of Aimee Garcia as Maria and Albena Dodeva as her sister carries the day. But even at its most engaging the show lacks emotional and political sophistication. In this frustratingly simplistic story every undocumented immigrant is a pillar of selflessness and fortitude while INS officials are harsh, disembodied voices and spinning red lights. And there's no hint that U.S. interventionism might have had something to do with the roving Salvadoran death squads that motivate the action. Considering the serious devolution of our immigration policies, it's unsatisfactory to shrink an international miasma to a parable of adolescent courage.