With a wealth of theatre and films about shut-ins for modern audiences to relate to (a list that should include everything from The Sound of Music to The Virgin Suicides), it’s easy to home in on the frequency of The House of Bernarda Alba. The play, which opens this week in the UM PAR/TV Masquer Theatre, is pregnant with Catholic dread, repressed sexuality and resignation.
It’s an excellent production that retains the frustrated power of Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca’s play and makes judicious use of multimedia to extrapolate some of the riddles García Lorca left in the original document. Namely, just what he meant by the cryptic note on the title page of his final draft: “The author gives notice that these three acts are intended as a photographic document.” Owing to Lorca’s death in the Spanish civil war, it’s a mystery that will probably never be truly solved. But it’s to this production’s credit that it hazards a few stylish guesses.
Set at the turn of the century on the rainless plains of Spain, The House of Bernarda Alba revolves around the widowed Bernarda and the five daughters she keeps in strict seclusion following the death of their father. Bernarda intends to enforce the eight-year mourning period of her parents and her parents’ parents. To that end, she supplies the daughters, who range in age (and, hence, marriageability) from a ripe 20 to well over the hill (in the standards of the day), with bolts of cloth to sew into their trousseaux, the clothing and household linens for their dowries. At 39, the oldest daughter, Angustius (played by Trena Shima), is something of a tragic joke in the family. Yet the inheritance left to her by her real father, Bernarda’s first husband, still attracts the occasional suitor and permits her a measure of independence in the otherwise locked-down household.
Her half-sisters are left to bear the full brunt of Bernarda (played by Sarah D’Angelo), the embittered Andalusian widow with a tongue of Toledo steel. Bernarda rules the household like a despot in black brocade, hobbling around on a matching black cane and spraying the pettiest of infractions with a stream of venom. Her insistence on complete submission from her daughters also extends to her deranged 80-year-old mother, whom the family keeps locked in a back room. An early encounter between Bernarda and a maid charged with the task of bringing the grandmother outside to cool off provides the play with one of its few moments of jet-black humor (excerpt from the Oxford Classic edition):
Maid: She took her rings and the amethyst earrings out of the box; she put them on and told me she wanted to get married.
Bernarda: Go with her and see she doesn’t go near the well.
Maid: Don’t worry, she won’t jump in.
Bernarda: It’s not that. If she’s there, the neighbors can see her from their windows.
The grandmother character (played by Ann Johnson), with all her babbling about wanting to get married, serves as a kind of Greek chorus. When the sisters begin competing for the attention of Pepe el Romano (tellingly, no man actually appears in the play), the flood of repressed emotions threatens the rigidly enforced silence and order of the secluded household.
Lorca based his characters on the family of Frasquita Alba Sierra, a widow from his hometown who kept her daughters in a similar state of seclusion after the death of her second husband. Ironically enough, in light of the family’s withdrawal from the outside world, it was actually dissension from within that brought their story into the open. A cousin of Lorca’s, Mercedes García Delgado, lived in the house adjacent to Frasquita’s in Fuente Vaqueros, a village in Granada where Lorca’s own father was a wealthy landowner. The two houses shared a well beneath the wall that separated the properties, and through this conduit the cousins could hear everything that was said on the other side.
Lorca began writing The House of Bernarda Alba 10 years after Frasquita’s death, although he never spoke to the daughters—five of them, just as in the play—who passed him quickly in the street with downcast or averted eyes. In July, 1936, just two months after he completed the play, soldiers of Franco’s Falangist party arrested Lorca at his summer home and took him to “visit” his murdered brother-in-law, the Socialist ex-mayor of Granada whose body had been dragged through the streets of the city. Upon arriving at his brother-in-law’s grave in the village cemetery, Lorca was beaten and shot and his body dumped in an unmarked grave—some ignoble hole unknown to this day.
The House of Bernarda Alba remains Lorca’s best-known play, and the cast of the UM production does a bang-up job of it. The timing is razor sharp, the acting thoroughly excellent. Sarah D’Angelo in particular is superb as the tyrannical Bernarda, flanked by strong performances from Karen Olds as Adela, the youngest daughter, and Shima as the aging and infirm Angustius. Sara Birk also does an excellent job of bringing the spite and desperation of Martirio, the long-suffering second youngest, to the fore, and Aleks Malejs deserves special mention for her performance as Poncia, the only woman in the household who can stand up to Bernarda.
One possible criticism, and not one of this production in particular but to productions of Lorca in general, is that the oaths uttered by several of his characters often defy any attempt to expel them convincingly in one breath. This is an artifact of the translation from Spanish, and as the translator’s note to my Oxford edition says, the translator of García Lorca is a tilter at windmills. Though written primarily in prose, the poetic rhythm of the dialogue seems to pick up an extra foot or two at the most inopportune moments. All told, though, the cast of Bernarda Alba manage to do it justice.
The House of Bernarda Alba runs Feb. 26 to March 2 and March 5 to 9 in the Masquer Theatre, with performances nightly at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $11 general, $10 students and seniors, available at the box offices in the PAR/TV Building and the University Center.