The House of Bernarda Alba

Greasy Joan & Company

at Victory Gardens Theater

I sincerely believe that theater is not and cannot be anything but emotion and poetry. –Federico Garcia Lorca

Theater’s unlikely new It Girl is Bernarda Alba, one of the most pitiless, irredeemable characters in world literature. Over the last few years this brutal matriarch, the “heroine” of Federico Garcia Lorca’s harrowing 1936 play, has shown up at the Mark Taper Forum (played by Chita Rivera) and England’s Orange Tree Theatre and in new ballets in Germany and New Zealand. Last spring David Hare’s translation debuted at London’s National Theatre to ecstatic reviews. Lincoln Center is developing a musical version with a book by Richard Nelson. And Greasy Joan & Company is staging a world-premiere translation by Karin Coonrod and recent Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz.

What can account for the fascination with a traditional Andalusian woman who dooms her five daughters to house arrest because she has a mania for keeping her family respectable? The House of Bernarda Alba opens with the protagonist imposing eight years of strict mourning on her daughters after their father’s funeral: it’s the 1930s, and they’ll live as though she’s “covered the doors and windows with bricks.” She tries to maintain near silence in the home, and in a perverse attempt to create domestic harmony occasionally beats her daughters with a scepterlike cane. The daughters, who range in age from 20 to 40, aren’t Bernarda’s only prisoners. She also keeps her senile mother locked in a spare room.

Lorca’s interest in this soul-destroying household was rooted in his early years in Asquerosa (literally “repulsive”) in rural Andalusia, where the future freethinker saw how repressive Catholic social norms could be. He based Bernarda on a neighbor with an authoritarian reputation. Just as his character single-mindedly suppresses and pathologizes her daughters’ sexual impulses, conventional Spanish society condemned the playwright’s homosexuality: he was jeered at openings, and he got two extra bullets in the ass when a fascist firing squad killed him two months after the play’s completion. At its broadest, his work is a desperate warning against Franco on the eve of the Spanish civil war.

Perhaps Bernarda’s rigid moralism resonates with the predominantly liberal folks who make theater these days because of the flourishing of religious fundamentalism worldwide and the ever-increasing influence of the religious right in America. If everyone is looking for a salvo in the culture wars, this play offers a particularly explosive one: Bernarda’s archconservative stance results in one daughter’s death and possibly the downfall of her entire family.

Director Julieanne Ehre makes an effort to give her production a contemporary feel: the daughters’ slouching, their relaxed cadences, and their general obliviousness to decorum mark them as 2005 Americans rather than Andalusians of the 1930s. Aside from occasional stylized blocking at emotional climaxes, Ehre also steers most of her cast toward psychological naturalism, having the sisters loll about in their lifeless home before turning on one another as jealousy erupts over the eldest’s fiance. Lorca might have supported this naturalistic approach: in the finished script, he advised actors to view the play as a “photographic document.” Still, its stripped-down action, characters, and color scheme remain poetic: he specifies that the walls of the house be “whiter than white” and the clothes black, except when Adela–the youngest daughter, who insists on sexual liberation–briefly wears green.

Like most of Lorca’s dramas, this one borrows as much from Andalusian folklore and Greek tragedy as from real life. And like most standard translations, Cruz and Coonrod’s 1998 script rightly adheres to the nonnaturalistic conventions of folktales and Greek classics. The House of Bernarda Alba has a minimal plot, so what gives the play its tension and stakes is primarily the mythic weight of Bernarda’s oppressive tactics and the turmoil they create. In this production, however, the work’s passions become merely human and seemingly muted, as is the color scheme. Scenic designer Scott Neale’s interiors are mottled sand, not white. Costume designer Alison Heryer drapes the daughters in gray, not black. The stage world created here may be familiar and accessible, but the emotion and poetry central to Lorca’s vision are largely replaced by a sense of measured concern.

However, emotion and poetry do emerge in Lynn Hall’s formal, clipped, stylistically incongruous performance as Bernarda. Ramrod stiff in a black dress as severe as her scowl, she rules her household with quiet ferocity. She can wither an opponent with a glance and takes her own power so much for granted that she matter-of-factly declares, “A daughter who disobeys stops being a daughter and becomes an enemy.” An epic figure, she seems a Medea in training. But wisely Hall leaves open a tiny window to Bernarda’s human heart. Though she doesn’t exhibit emotion, her state is clearly precarious, and Hall lets the despair under the icy demeanor trickle out. The more forcefully Bernarda tries to exert her power, the more her inner turmoil threatens to shatter her, and her journey elicits the awe and pity appropriate to tragedy.

The odd woman out, Hall might be criticized for a performance that’s seemingly from a different play. But I’d say she’s in the right play, and Ehre’s job now is to help the rest of the cast find their way into it too.

When: Through 10/30

Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln

Price: $20-$25, student rush tickets available, Thu industry night

Info: 773-871-3000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.