By Nick Mitchell, ‘Burgh Vivant
Bernarda Alba’s second husband has recently passed away. Mourners roam the theater freely and mingle with the audience. One plays a hauntingly solemn tune on a violin. Soon after the lights dim and the funeral hymn ends, the widow Alba appears and decrees that her household of 5 daughters shall observe eight years of mourning. In 1930’s Andalusia, that means no boys allowed until the moon has waxed and waned a solid 96 times.
Set entirely inside the confines of the house, the daughters are initially intimidated into obedience. Of course they slowly succumb to the heat of the scorching Spanish sun. Their passions manifest themselves both by lashing out at each other and in their lust for the local lothario, Pepe “el Romano.” Pepe visits the eldest daughter’s window nightly to court her…but is hers the only window in the Alba household that he frequents? In fact, is this even the only house in Andalusia where he speaks sweet words to a captive female audience?
Federico Garcia Lorca titled this play “The House of Bernarda Alba” for a reason. The fierce need of the widowed matriarch to preserve status and propriety through familial tyranny requires an actress who can demand attention and obedience simply with posture and presence. Alex Williams’ every moment on stage embodies Alba’s intangible essence leaves no question as to who is in charge. Late in the show, director Monica Payne allows us a fleeting glimpse of the widow’s vulnerability and fatigue. It is a truly beautiful moment that a lesser actor/director combo might have easily overplayed.
While all five actresses are well-cast, Lorca has clearly picked favorites as Adela (Aenya Ulke) and Martirio (Michelle Iglesius) have the bulk of the best-written scenes. The sisters are opposite sides of the same coin of love, longing, and jealousy. The raw, honest dialogue Ulke and Iglesius each speak, will make you wonder if either sister was truly in the wrong.
Thanks to Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s design, the house itself is a major character in the production. The simple placement of chairs within three confining walls make the space feel smaller and smaller as tensions rose. Cat Wilson’s light design included silhouettes of the outside world (of men) cast ominously through the walls. In fact, no men appear in the play, they are represented only as literal shadows of influence.
The five daughters range in age from 19-39. The effect was lost in a cast of all college students. Also, the positioning and repositioning of the chairs involved exaggerated, stylized movements. Such fluid choreography seemed at odds with the play’s tempo and economy of language. Fortunately, neither of these factors were distracting enough to take away from the power of the piece.
After a 90-minute whirlwind of three uninterrupted acts, the audience is released from the Casa D’Alba with more questions than resolutions. How far can one go to preserve a reputation? Does mother really know best? Could you have gone eight years without dating when you were twenty?
On the way out, another emotionally wrecked theater-goer asked this reviewer on the way out: “Where’s the closest place I can get a vodka martini?” Lots of interesting questions arise after seeing this play.
“The House of Bernarda Alba” runs to March 11 at the Ruah Theater in the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here.