I’ll be frank. When you see production stills from The House of Bernarda Alba, the somber-looking images certainly don’t grab you. The gaggle of stone-faced women, clad in black mourning attire, looks far from enticing. But the 70-year-old play by Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) is pretty electrifying. The intensity of the plot focuses on a struggle among strong, desperate women, while also showing the power of repression and jealousy to split a family apart.
The riveting new Circle Theatre production showcases intense performances by a strong all-female cast. Kristin Gehring directs a taut, beautifully realized production. Though the disturbing conflicts in this tale of frustrated desire belong to another time and place, they provide much thought-provoking insight into sibling rivalry and family conflict.
The play is set in rural Spain in the late 1930s, the era of the Spanish Civil War, although the military conflict is not portrayed or even alluded to in the storyline.
The plot immediately draws you in. After her husband’s death, a stern matriarch clamps down even harder on her five unmarried daughters. The harsh widow, Bernarda, dictates eight years of rigidly enforced mourning like she’s delivering a prison sentence. The girls will live like cloistered nuns. She even dictates that the shutters are to remain closed. There will be no chance for any love or sex for these young women.
“Nothing happens that I don’t see or I don’t control,” Bernarda boasts.
At times the cane-wielding tyrant becomes menacingly violent. But despite her bullying, her daughters’ desires continually collide with her iron rule.
Maggie Speer is terrific in the title role. With her rolled curls piled on her head like a crown, she’s like an evil queen in a Disney movie. Her daughters call her “a twisted old gecko.” Bernarda is motivated by the rigid requirements of reputation and the burden of her family’s respectable “lace curtain” status in a small community of mostly peasants. An unmarried neighbor girl who’s given birth is viciously hunted down by a mob. Yet although we may understand Bernarda’s inflexible motivations, we never see this tyrant mother show any compassion.
The five young women are stifled to the point of suffocation. In a world so tightly bound by tradition, can they escape their witch-like mother’s tyranny?
Richer than her sisters, the eldest daughter (Susan Karsnick), well past her bloom, is being secretly courted by Pepe el Romano, a handsome, much-younger villager. His motive is pretty clear: she is the only daughter with a dowry.
Yet other siblings are hot for him, too. The rivalry between the oldest and the youngest daughter (Nicole Cardano) grows increasingly intense when it’s discovered the latter has been slipping outside in the middle of the night for liaisons with Pepe.
Another one of the girls, a lame hunchback (Kelly Schumann), says, “God made me weak and ugly. It’s His way of keeping the men away.” Yet she too burns with desire for Pepe el Romano, who seems to be the only eligible bachelor in the region. If she can’t have him, neither will her youngest sister. Her jealousy becomes a malicious force within the family.
Bernarda’s long-time housekeeper (Susan Adler), functions as both confidante and snoop. But her iron-fisted employer pulls rank and puts her in her place any time she grows too perceptive or outspoken. The harsh widow sees her servant as both an ally and an opponent.
Patti Roeder plays Bernarda’s elderly mother, a demented woman who is kept locked up in a spare room but occasionally breaks free. Also desperate for happiness, the white-haired old lady’s babbling is both mad and on-target. She functions like a Greek chorus.
No men are ever seen in this play, yet it’s fascinating to see how the women of the Alba household are still manipulated by them.
Catherine Ferraro and Lindley Gibbs play the two remaining sisters. Other members of the cast are Rula Sirhan Gardenier, Jeannie Affelder, Jessica Goforth, Julianne Macarus, Gina Castellaneta, Lisa Wilson, and Marta Kotzian.
Over the years critics have called this drama an allegorical attack on the growing Fascism that swept through Spain. Others saw the conflict as symbolic of the repression playwright Lorca must have felt as a gay man in a time of socially imposed sexual taboos. Lorca once said that “to burn with desire yet keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.”
Lorca based his drama upon the real-life neighbor of his cousin. Shortly after completing The House of Bernarda Alba, 37-year-old Spanish poet and playwright Lorca was dragged into a field, executed by a firing squad of right-wing Franco supporters, and tossed into an unmarked grave. He never lived to see a staging of his new play, which was not produced in Spain for 30 years. His books were even prohibited. Lorca now symbolizes the many martyred Spaniards who fell victim to Franco’s tyranny.
Bob Knuth’s white stucco set effectively conveys the spotless, airless house, and is nicely lit by Aimee Whitmore.
Peter J. Storms’ sound design lends a heightened sense of reality, from the crickets chirping in the hot night to the work songs of the men harvesting in the distant fields.
I saw this play at Victory Gardens Theatre on the North Side last fall. Circle’s production is far more exciting and well-mounted.