Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba is a difficult play to carry off. The plot concerns a group of five daughters confined within the walls of their house for an eight-year mourning period by the iron will of their bitter, violent, widowed mother. Marriage is the only possible escape for these young women, but their mother insists that no man in the village is of their class; she also refuses to move because her family would be considered impoverished in any other place. The set and costumes are realistic -- we're in a lace-hung Spanish home of the 1930s with a cross on the wall, a candelabra, a mirror draped in black -- but the language is brooding and poetic, and the action condensed and bloodily swift. This is a fever dream of a play involving church bells, a stallion's hooves pounding at a stable door, trysts at barred bedroom windows, an old woman who escapes her attic prison to wander through the house with a white lamb in her arms. Religious ideas about sin and redemption stir under the dialogue, and the text is thick with symbolism. The House of Bernarda Alba begins with a funeral and ends with another death.
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We sense the rigid class system of the period, the formalized relationships between men and women and the powerlessness of the latter: Even as she imprisons her children, Bernarda Alba herself is trapped by her society's rigid strictures. It's hard, too, not to make a connection between the stifling, hopeless atmosphere of the matriarch's house and the looming fascist threat in Lorca's Spain. Only a couple of months after writing The House of Bernarda Alba, the playwright himself was murdered by Franco's goons.
Cooped up with each other in the stifling heat of Andalusia, the young women find their sexuality curdling into envy and rage. The oldest daughter, Angustias, is betrothed to Pepe el Romano, but he is in love with Adela, the beautiful youngest child. He is marrying Angustias only because she has inherited money. Two maids come and go, bringing gossip from the outside world. The mother sometimes confides in Poncia, one of these maids, but there's no affection between them. Poncia advises the daughters, but she cares little for them, or they for her. There is no love within this house, and the sisters give each other no comfort. Betrayals multiply until one of them turns deadly.
The House of Bernarda Alba
Federal Theater, 3830 Federal Boulevard
Presented by Arcos Azules Theatre Company through May 29, 303-571-0901, www.arcosazules.org
Janine Ann Kehlenbach of the Arcos Azules Theatre Company has staged a production that's worthy of respect, though neither as fiery nor as illuminating as the script demands. The set is fine, clean and stark, with a few ornate details. There are some very effective moments, as when Bernarda Alba prays and her daughters echo the prayer, ritually crossing themselves again and again. In another resonant scene, Adela begins to dance and, one by one, her older sisters join her.
Margaret Amateis Casart takes on the role of Bernarda Alba -- a difficult one, since the character sounds one blind, hateful, bullying note throughout, softening only for a single brief exchange with Adela. Casart has the requisite rage and strength, but it would have been helpful if she'd been able to find more variation within the role. Kristine Pound conveys the bitter, silent anguish of Angustias with discipline and integrity. Janet Mylott is excellent as Martirio, sometimes gentle, sometimes savage, as rage and love compete for her soul. Nita Morris Froelich is a poised Poncia, and Nickie Gomez has a nice moment as the second maid when she relaxes into a chair and sticks her legs out in front of her -- a pleasantly artless gesture, given the airless world we're seeing. Gehane Strehler, who plays Adela, is physically graceful and has an expressive face, but her voice grates a little, and while she fully reveals Adela's bratty immaturity, she does not communicate the girl's depth.