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Allison Nichols and Eunice Wong in The House of Bernarda Alba
(Photo © Matthew Shane Coleman)
"To be born a woman is the greatest punishment," says one of the characters in Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. Written in 1936, Lorca's masterpiece explores issues of class and gender within the household of a widow and her five adult daughters. The play is a powerful testament to the desire for freedom under repressive conditions; the Pearl Theatre Company is using a fine, new English translation by Caridad Svich. Directed by Shepard Sobel, the production has its moments but suffers from poor pacing and uneven performances.

Bernarda Alba (Carol Schultz) has decreed that her family will enter into eight years of mourning following the death of her second husband; however, her daughters yearn to escape, and their sexual longing threatens to destroy Bernarda's carefully regimented household. Eldest daughter Angustias (Robin Leslie Brown), the only child born of Bernarda's first husband, is also the only one with any income of her own. Her comparative wealth makes her attractive to the handsome Pepe el Romano, who comes to court her. But Pepe's presence ignites the flames of desire in some of Bernarda's other daughters, as well -- particularly Martirio (Eunice Wong) and youngest daughter Adela (Allison Nichols). Although Bernarda's longtime servant Poncia (Joanne Camp) tries to warn her mistress of impending doom as a result of the fissures within the family, Bernarda refuses to listen.

Schultz captures Bernarda's outward manner, appearing stern and officious. Her interactions with Poncia are especially sharp as she makes it clear that they are not friends; "You serve me and I pay you," she states bluntly. Yet Schultz only plays the surface of the character; there doesn't appear to be anything beneath the matriarch's façade. The actress is unable to make Bernarda's more emotional moments towards the end of the play believable rather than melodramatic.

Camp is a bit shaky on her lines, and while her no-nonsense delivery is often appropriate, there's a general flatness to her manner of speaking. Still, she is much better than Fulvia Vergel, who plays another servant in Bernarda's house; Vergel falls into a repetitious vocal rhythm that's quite annoying. Carmen de Lavallade is striking as Bernarda's crazy mother Maria Josefa, who is usually kept locked up in her room. However, her first appearance at the end of Act I is marred by a poorly staged struggle between Maria Josefa and Bernarda's daughters. (David DeBesse is credited as the fight director.)

The production is most successful in the interactions between the daughters. Brown is terrific as Angustias, striking just the right balance between insecurity and pompous self-centeredness. Melissa Maxwell endows Magdalena with a forceful personality that threatens the balance of power between the daughters in a very interesting way. Wong brings a pained hopelessness to Martirio; her eyes practically burn with envy and longing. Nichols captures Adela's free spirit and her disregard for the feelings of her sisters. Alone among the sisters, only Elena Araoz as Amelia does not bring a distinctive characterization to her role.

Interestingly, the casting of the production is rather multi-cultural: Maxwell and Nichols are African American, while Wong is Asian American and the other two daughters of Bernarda Alba are Caucasian. This non-traditional casting does not appear to be making any specific point about race but it does give the production something of a timeless and placeless quality. Although the program identifies the action as occurring in a village in Spain, the racial makeup of the town's inhabitants seem to unfix the play from its original location.

Director Sobel has unwisely decided that Bernarda Alba should be performed with two intermissions. Granted, Lorca's play is divided into three acts. But given that the first break comes after only half an hour, and the entire evening (including intermissions) clocks in at less than two hours, it seems unnecessary to interrupt the action in this way. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the pacing drags at several points, and the large group scenes are not staged in a very visually dramatic manner. This is not a poor production by any means, but it lacks the dynamism necessary to make Lorca's play as devastating as it should be.

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