CAMBRIDGE — When Benjamin Benne’s “Alma” begins, it’s December 2016, shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency with a campaign fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric.
For a lot of people, Trump’s election was a jolting development, a worst-case scenario come to life.
For Alma (Karina Beleno Carney), a 34-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and the 17-year-old daughter, Angel (Luz Lopez), with whom she shares a one-bedroom apartment in La Puente, Calif., there is nothing abstract about the threat posed by Trump.
In a very real way, their future will be thrown into doubt when he is inaugurated the following month.
To wit: Alma could be forced to return to Mexico and spend a decade there before getting her green card. Mother and daughter could be separated.
A grim prospect. “Alma” would be a stronger play if it maintained a sharper focus on that central dilemma.
To be clear, there is much to admire and moments of considerable power in “Alma,” directed at Central Square Theater by Elena Velasco. The director has devised a haunting visual finale to the production, while playwright Benne has given faces and voices to a subject, immigration, that is too often reduced to numbers and partisan political disputes.
“Alma” reminds us of the kind of struggles and fears faced by the human beings who are caught in the middle of that debate. To underscore those fears, and to capture the Trump-saturated mediasphere of 2016, the playwright has incorporated an impactful device: Alma and Angel’s TV set keeps mysteriously turning itself on at a high volume, invariably featuring either a story about Trump or his voice.
But “Alma,” which runs only 75 minutes, takes a while to find its stride, largely because Benne devotes too much time to shouting matches between Alma and Angel that, in large part, could be any protective mother and rebellious daughter quarreling over how much independence the latter is entitled to. The specificity of their circumstances is the play’s chief strength, but it’s not accentuated enough early on.
Yes, the subtext of their argument (and the reason for Alma’s vehemence) is the mother’s desperate anxiety over her precarious position and her worries about her daughter’s future. But the play would benefit from a clearer — and earlier — sense of the stakes involved. Once those stakes become apparent midway through the play, “Alma” starts to jell.
What galvanizes their argument, which takes place late at night, is the refusal by Angel, a high school senior, to take the SAT exam the next day. It’s the last day she can take it in order to qualify for fall registration in college.
Alma is astounded and infuriated by her daughter’s stance (the argument even turns physical). The mother had made an arduous journey 17 years earlier to come to the United States, alone and pregnant, and has worked at physically demanding jobs since she was 7 years old. She wants something different for her daughter: Alma’s longtime dream is for Angel to attend the University of California, Davis, and eventually become a veterinarian.
Angel has zero interest in being a vet, and when it comes to higher education, she informs Alma, her preference is not UC Davis but rather a nearby community college. We eventually learn her reason, and it’s a moving one.
Lopez delivers an outstanding performance as Angel. She captures the full spectrum of the teenager’s conflicting emotions and is equally persuasive in Angel’s moments of defiance (she told her mother she was studying, but went drinking instead), snarky certitude (she leaps to correct any grammatical miscues by her mother), and vulnerability.
I found Beleno Carney’s portrayal of Alma to be overly broad in the early going, when “Alma” veers toward the comic. But she finds her footing as the play moves into deeper territory.
And Benne, a 2022 graduate of the David Geffen/Yale School of Drama playwriting program? Notwithstanding the flaws of “Alma,” he’s clearly a talent to watch.
Play by Benjamin Benne. Directed by Elena Velasco. Presented by Central Square Theater, Cambridge. Through March 26. Tickets start at $25. 617-576-9278, ext. 1, www.centralsquaretheater.org