There's torture, but The House of the Spirits isn't torturous

The power of The House of the Spirits, playwright Caridad Svich's take on Isabel Allende's celebrated novel, lies in the accumulation of images, actions and passionate words that the play pours out into the audience, as well as the bitter sadness at its heart. Consider the scenes separately, and they often appear overblown or melodramatic. But put them together, and the story moves you — partly because it's a powerful one, partly because of what we know about the historical realities behind it. Allende's uncle, the democratically elected president of Chile, was overthrown in 1973 in a bloody coup aided by the United States. He committed suicide. Years of terror followed, and thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Allende's novel isn't a factual account, but her intergenerational story is shaped by these somber events.

Svich frames the action with the post-coup torture of Alba, the youngest member of the family. The first scene takes place in the torture chamber, and the script returns to it again and again. Alba has pored over the notebooks of her grandmother, Clara, a woman gifted with second sight, and she becomes our narrator. Clara's beautiful green-haired sister, Rosa, was loved by Esteban Trueba, a peasant on the family estate. After Rosa's death, he turned his attentions to Clara — and one of his earliest acts after winning her was to have her beloved dog killed on the day of their wedding. Director Jose Zayas uses several theatrical devices to great effect — video, words written in light on the floor and then swirling into nothingness before you can read them, a trap door that becomes a grave — so this dog is played by a large puppet animated, quite visibly, by one of the actors. As the dog-puppet sinks to the floor, the actor walks slowly away from it, trailing a blood-red scarf — a very effective signifier of ebbing life. Esteban Trueba becomes a wealthy landowner who rapes and mistreats his own peasants, eventually fathering a child, Esteban Garcia (well and coldly played by Drew Cortese), whom he never acknowledges. He adores Blanca, his daughter with Clara, but Blanca eventually falls in love with Pedro, the son of Trueba's overworked and underpaid foreman, and a socialist, incurring her father's unforgiving wrath.

Alba is the daughter of Blanca and Pedro. History has turned on itself like a snake eating its own tail, and the greed and violence of the grandfather has been visited on his grandchild. Even knowing this, and despite a couple of Miss Havisham-like exclamations of "What have I done?," Trueba's worldview remains unchanged. And yet — miraculously — the relationship between Trueba and Alba endures.

As Esteban Trueba, John Hutton anchors the production, transforming from a young suitor to an enfeebled old man as we watch. Franca Sofia Barchiesi's charm and physical grace as Clara embue the chilling events on stage with warmth, and there are many other fine performances, some in small roles: As a priest hearing confession, Lawrence Hecht adds a sly and unexpected moment of humor, Allison Pistorius is a wistful Rosa, and Lanna Joffrey gives us a nicely grounded, and unexpectedly merciful, Transito Soto. But there's less focus on the individual players here than on the enduring bonds among the women and the unfolding of a complex emotional and historical tapestry.

Svich has said that images from Abu Ghraib were in her mind as she wrote The House of the Spirits. Torture is an evil that periodically goes undercover in modern democracies but never entirely vanishes, and those who work with its victims will testify that no one fully recovers from the experience. The torture scenes in The House of the Spirits are upsetting, but not quite convincing enough to disturb sleep — and this is a good thing. If they were, I might have left the theater early, without absorbing the ways in which Svich and Allende link the personal and the political and show individual actions reaching forward through time, whether to damn or to save.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman