Starting over

Evangeline Rose G. Eigenmann (a.k.a. Cherie Gil) - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - In mid 2014, having just done Full Gallop, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and director Loy Arcenas invited me to play the lead matriarch in a Filipino adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. Admittedly, I was reluctant and intimidated by the prospect. I knew Chekov as the great classic playwright but I knew nothing of his works.

The final draft of Arbol De Fuego arrived at my inbox five months later. I went for a reading with the entire cast and realized there was no turning back.

There is a world of difference between reading through lines and immersing one’s self in a Chekov character. Little did I know it would be so grueling, both emotionally and physically.

My character, Enriquetta Jardaleza-Soforonio (or Rica), returns to her place of birth in Negros after five years in Madrid to deal with loss and grief. From an affluent background of hacienderos and never having to work a day in her life, she arrives at a difficult realization that at middle age, she has to start all over again. Her ancestral home, now on the brink of bankruptcy, is the only symbol that binds her to her past and family history.

I myself grew up knowing only a part of the ancestral home my mom’s family built in 1861 in Porac, Pampanga. I remember going there as a child, when mom would say over and over again that our sugar lands used to reach as far as the eye could see. What was once known as “ang bahay maragol” in Kapampangan (meaning “the big house”) is today a storage house for things forgotten by family members.

So much has changed since I experienced all its glory, pre-lahar, as a child. The narra walls, turn-of-the-century Spanish tiled floors and stained-glass windows remind me of beautiful times spent there.

Bygone days had men playing chess on horseback in the plaza; a sight I imagine would have been perfect for an epic film like Oro, Plata, Mata. I have many fond memories, most of them holding my older brother Ralph’s hand, tagging along to every mischievous adventure he had in mind. From swimming in the river or swinging from a rope tied to a tree like jungle kids, to eating off banana leaves while the sweet smell of rice being cooked in bamboo filled the air, picking kasoy to roast, riding carabaos, shooting pool with the locals, singing songs to the aetas from our bay windows and watching the Holy Week penitensya as men whipped their backs till they bled — up close, quite a traumatic sight for a child — deeply imprinted in my mind until this day.

In the play, Rica deals with the loss of her youngest son, Rafael, who drowns in the river at age seven. Rody Vera, who wrote the adaptation, admits he had no idea that was my brother’s real name. How could he when my brother was better known as Mark Gil, so I believed him and decided not to persuade him to change it. How much closer to home can that be?

Having lost Ralph to liver cancer barely six months ago, I cannot help but connect to that grief that seems to never end. As I speak Rica’s words and hear everyone else’s in the process, I take in fresh insights on how to deal with this pain.

It is no wonder they say that every Chekov character ever written is for and about each and every man. And no other material has affected me in a most personal level.

In my brother’s last days, he uttered, “I lived for my work as an actor and sacrificed so much for it. I am proud of all I have done but in the end, it is the people we love who count the most.” He almost died angry, as he was in his life but he made his peace and found his way out free. He died without anything to his name, leaving nothing behind other than the invaluable body of work to which he put so much of his heart and soul into. That is his legacy and I, for one, can never witness great acting in another great Filipino film without Mark Gil coming to mind.

After the death of my brother, who was more like my twin, I find myself at a major crossroad. Like Rica, I am starting over. Also middle-aged and now divorced, I do not know what lies ahead. I live to do my best at whatever God has laid before me; for now that entails playing Rica and sharing the stage with some of the best actors in the country. It is a gift. This may well be my last ode to the world of performance, to my brother Ralph and to the family history my mother so fondly recalls.

I have yet to determine where to go from here, just as Rica would have to figure out the same. I have made many mistakes and continue to do so. I’ve had my heart broken along the way, proving that some lessons are just so hard to learn. Because I give my all to everything I do, I am tired, depleted of inner resources to loan to any other character after Rica. Yet I know I must find a reason to go on, not just to survive as Rica perhaps would, but to really live. Not by being rescued by a knight in shining armor but by one’s own strength and courage. I am hoping that this third chapter of my life will lead to better and wiser choices.

My three children have started to spread their wings, and I feel an urgent need to be closer to them more than ever. Children will always need their parents’ strength and support no matter how old they get. We all have the little child in us, with the need to be nurtured and loved. 

In the seven years of blessings and work since my separation in 2008, I managed 11 soaps, five films, three stage plays (now on my fourth) and numerous trips to New York to spend time with my children. They’ve given me that space to reconnect with a familiar identity once lost for a while.

Like my brother, I have no attachment to material gains. I have known what it’s like to have money beyond what I dared to dream of in my youth. But the illusion that it would never run out clouded my mind. I spent wantonly and thought nothing of spending for the needs and wants of loved ones. While my work has brought me a life of comfort — with my share of signature clothes and luxurious cars — I can now live without them. Who needs all that, and so much? I have paid my dues diligently. I now ask myself: What dreams and goals are worth living for if not to be shared with those we love? It is time for that change. I have not made any concrete plans. Though it can be a tad scary, I look forward to the unknown.

 I am ready to welcome a new life, to be closer to a place I can call home, and to be the person I have yet to become…at 51.

Rica’s daughter Nina takes her by the hand   when all is lost and says… “halika na Mama, aalis na tayo, sa malayong malayo. Doon magtatanim tayo ng mga bagong puno, maiintindihan mo Mama, at doon makakaramdam ka ng kakaibang ligaya, na may liwanag sa iyong kaluluwa.

Rica looks back at her past, with grace and gratitude, and says… “adios balay dako, paalam… ang aking buhay, kabataan, kaligayahan….Paalam…”

And chances are, Enriquetta Jardaleza-Sofronio, once the rich and strong matriarch of Hacienda Carmen, in spite of having lost everything, will be just fine. Just fine.

(Arbol De Fuego goes on stage at the PETA Theater every weekend, Friday to Sunday, until March 15 with shows at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. For details, call Ticketworld 891-9999 or 0917-5098968. For comments, e-mail [email protected].)

Top to bottom: This series of photos shows how happy I was with Ralph and our brother Michael (de Mesa). We spent so many happy times together even when we each have our own families. And then, middle of last year, Ralph left us…











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