theater (reviews)

review: the house of bernarda alba

The House of Bernarda Alba

By Federico Garcia Lorca, English version by David Hare
Directed by Kristin Gerhring
A Circle Theatre production
Mainstage
7300 West Madison Street
Forest Park, IL 60130

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 28, 2006

Lorca’s Story of Repression and Violence Struggles for Balance

  • “Better never to lay eyes on a man, never to have seen one.”
  • “I think you’ll find cash makes anything possible.”
  • “At my age, remember women can see through walls.”
  • “When a daughter disobeys she ceases to be a daughter; she becomes a kind of enemy”
  • “It doesn’t matter what we feel, only what we let ourselves show.”

This array of dialogue illustrates the mixture of pathos and humor in the text of Frederico Garcia Lorca’s THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, in a fresh new 2005 English version by David Hare now at the Circle Theatre in Forest Park.   The story begins with a household of five sisters in mourning after the death of the family patriarch, and proceeds to show the limits of the female lives left behind, as filtered and controlled by the matriarch Bernarda Alba who has declared an eight year mourning period for all in the household.  The oldest of the sisters is quickly betrothed (inspiring the great “cash makes anything possible” line from one of the sisters), and the youngest sister then begins a secretive affair with this same man.  The responses of the family to this situation range from dispassionate cynicism to jealousy.  One daughter finally chooses a way to escape the intense claustrophobic atmosphere, and the rest of the characters stand, stunned, commanded to silence.   This family shows us a woman’s world that is bounded by immediate past events (the death of the family patriarch), contemporary social retribution (the family watches an unmarried mother being hunted down in the street, some shouting “Kill her!”), social conventions including mourning and courting customs probably outdated even at the time of this play, and the rigid personality of the titular head of this household, Bernarda Alba.

The text is spunky and engaging, sardonic and harrowing.   The set by Bob Knuth is spectacularly evocative of a plaster/adobe, rural, ceramic tile floored, ironwork windowed home in 1930s Spain.  Lighting by Aimee Whitmore and sound design by Peter J. Storm beautifully complement the playwright’s evocation of a stuffy but sometimes lovely interior world.  The direction by Kristin Gerhring and performances by the sizable cast bring us to a frenzied peak of anger and frustration and, with very few breaks in this pitch, keeps us there for almost two hours.  And this is the challenge of this production.

Some performances deserve special mention.  Susan Veronika Adler as Poncia, the senior house servant, shines in her role of wise observer of family events, who takes verbal abuse from many of the household members yet remains loyal.  The youngest daughter Adela is provided naïve sparkle and final gravitas by Nicole Cardano, Petite Catherine Ferraro as Magdalena, one of the middle sisters, has some of the best ascerbic lines and delivers them to great effect.  Kelly Schumann energetically portrays the crippled and jealous sister Martirio.  A middle sister Amelia is elegantly portrayed by Lindley Gibbs, and Susan Karsnick as Angustias, the eldest daughter, portrays the entitlement and confusion of an eldest sibling frustrated in her birthright.

Maggie Speer as Bernarda has the challenge of embodying a character who dominates the play with words and cane and invocation of convention.  This performance does not let us see the real tragedy of Bernarda — the woman who became this repressive soul, who would ultimately march out with a shot gun to protect her family, and returns with a lie which sets the remaining action of the play in motion.  We understand that she is angry, and we’ve been harangued for the entire play by her.  Is she also thwarted or pragmatic or disappointed?  This performance does not give us the shadings to suspect other dimensions to the character.  There must be other pitches to the character’s voice, other tones with which lines can be delivered.  We wait to be overpowered by her and we are just worn out.

This production also does not allow the humor in the script its own voice.  Among the five daughters of two marriages, an angry matriarch, two female servants, several mourners, and a visiting villager or family member there are many humorous lines, but these actresses seem to play most all speeches for anger and frustration.   Some of the actresses appeared to be surprised at the moments of genuine humor (at least in this reviewer’s audience) that provide a calculated and human break in the unrelenting oppression of Bernarda Alba’s home in 1930s rural repressive Spain.

The play’s structure deserves comment.  The National Theatre production had a running time of 2 hours 40 minutes (probably including several intermissions).  This production has a running time of 100 minutes or so, including an intermission scheduled about three-fourths of the way through the production.  The intermission served only to break the spell that had been created by the performances, and in fact to create some confusion for the audience.  When the much shorter second act was concluded, the feeling was “Is that it?” rather than the “Wow” that might have been earned by the dramatic arc of dramatic events that had just unfolded.  While the intermission marks the passage of time, it interrupts the dramatic flow before the explosions to which we have been led by all prior events.  Could the production do without the intermission entirely?

This is an important allegorical story that provides a ride through a piece of history.  The lives of these women, the production values, and the script itself make this worth the trip.

Somewhat Recommended

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 28, 2006)

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