A review of Rose Cano’s “Bernie’s Apt.,” a tale of women kept isolated by their pasts and their caretaker, a coproduction of ACTLab and eSe Teatro.

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Taking a cue from Federico García Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” local playwright Rose Cano weaves her own tale of complex female relationships in “Bernie’s Apt.,” a coproduction from ACTLab and Cano’s company eSe Teatro.

In a sometimes moving, sometimes labored script, Cano introduces a host of challenges for her characters, including a mysterious illness, trouble with the law, financial strains, a possibly dubious religious awakening, undocumented immigration status, teenage pregnancy and a broken foster-care system. The entire play takes place within the confines of a cramped apartment, as bursting at the seams with activity as the play itself.

Household matriarch Bernie (Alma Villegas) has built a makeshift family under her roof, taking in a steady stream of foster kids while toiling away at her thankless minimum-wage job.

THEATER REVIEW

‘Bernie’s Apt.’

by Rose Cano. Through May 28 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $20-$30 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

Raised from adolescence by Bernie, Maggie (Sophie Franco) and Marti (Pilar O’Connell) are torn between loyalty for their adoptive mother and a desire to establish their own lives as adults. Maggie works as a phone psychic to help pay the bills, while Marti laments her de facto status as cook and maid, and dreams of opening her own food truck.

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Newly added to the family is Adela (Meme García), a recent immigrant whose Quinceañera is approaching, a party that Bernie is planning to go all out for, despite her struggle to make ends meet.

Feeling a little lost in the shuffle is Bernie’s ailing biological daughter Angie (Javonna Arriaga), who begins secretly searching for acceptance within the doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

There’s also a goofy pastry-throwing grandmother (Yolanda Suarez, doing double-duty also playing a sympathetic neighbor), whose ancillary presence doesn’t quite achieve a convincing portrait of cross-generational connection.

In this crowded configuration, a number of plot developments can feel rushed or artificial, but under Julie Beckman’s patient direction, the rhythms of the interpersonal dynamics ring true.

Franco and O’Connell make us feel the weight of their divided selves, split between commiserating over their deferred ambitions and their duty to help maintain stability in the house. García’s brash exterior conceals a gnawing loneliness she’ll only briefly reveal, while Arriaga’s genuine earnestness assuages the abrupt turns of her subplot.

And then there’s Bernie. Cano has written a deeply complicated character, her actions walking a razor-thin line between selflessness and selfishness, and her motivations an inextricable blend of the two. This is a woman who’s stood up to countless economic and societal pressures not only to provide for her family but to create one out of thin air. And yet the main narrative thread crystallizes around a series of her wrongheaded choices.

Villegas’ performance potently captures Bernie’s weariness, every reflexively sardonic retort well-placed, but her compliments and proclamations of love sound suspiciously similar. Ostensible words of affection seem to curdle in her mouth, every statement about “my girls” carrying an unintentionally bitter aftertaste.

A character in “Bernie’s Apt.” asserts that motherhood is the most beautiful and terrible thing in the world. There are glimpses of the former here, but they tend to be fleeting.