During one scene in The House of Bernarda Alba, a solemn servant sets water and wine on a table as Gregorian chants echo off the home's stone walls. Such overly pious details dominate Manhattan Theater Source's fabulous interpretation of Federico Garcia Lorca's play. Most important, the religious visuals hint at the title character's obsession with keeping up appearances: the house will look holy, even if what happens inside is far from sacred. This backdrop is fitting when Bernarda (Joy Franz) declares an eight-year mourning period on the day of her husband's funeral, essentially turning her home into a convent for her five daughters, aged 20 to 39. Few visitors and no men are allowed inside. As the confining walls close in on the girls, their literal and emotional claustrophobia surfaces in cruelty, jealousy, and near madness. Thanks to a superb cast and direction by Kathleen O'Neill that consistently hits the mark, tension builds slowly and compellingly until sparks of frustration tragically catch fire.
This production particularly emphasizes Lorca's humorous undertones. In Bernarda's personal kingdom, notions of convention and class are warped by her misguided sense of priorities (reputation first, love second). Here, cruel words are delivered comically, while drunks and eccentrics are presented as the heralds of truth and logic.
In a place where things aren't as they appear, it would be inaccurate to label Bernarda a mere dictator. Although it's a startling treat every time Franz steps onstage and barks an order (audience members may feel the need to straighten their posture as her disapproving gaze hovers above), her Bernarda is obviously not heartless. Franz deftly shifts from unmerciful witch to wry wit in a beat, offering a harsh barb one moment and a deadpan one-liner the next. As her crazy mother wanders in the yard, she tells a maid to make sure she stays clear of the well. Not because she might fall in, Bernarda says, but "because that's where the neighbors can see her."
Bernarda's foil is her servant, Poncia (Olivia Lawrence). With Poncia's unabashed hatred for her boss and complete lack of enthusiasm for her work, Lawrence carries every scene with a sharp tongue and an unending supply of sass. Her hilarious anecdotes and sarcastic advice provide a light counterpoint to the play's sad plot.
When the town's best-looking man comes calling for the eldest daughter, Angustias (Stephanie Schmiderer), the other sisters are consumed with envy and bewilderment. They conclude that money is the only reason someone would desire their old, sickly sister. As they fight over the always offstage suitor, Pepe el Romano, the actresses make the girls' desperation palpable.
Martirio, the physically deformed daughter, is perhaps the play's most complex character, and Meredith Napolitano portrays her with a fragile bitterness. Unfortunately, Benita Robledo's performance as Adela, the sister who has an affair with Pepe, fills the young daughter with so much anger that she lacks the naïve, romantic quality that should be her tragic flaw. When Adela's love drives her to extreme measures, the climax doesn't seem justified.
With less stage time, Joy Seligsohn and Cambpell Echols offer stellar supporting performances as an insane grandmother and the seemingly alcoholic daughter Magdalena, respectively. As Lorca disguises the play's most poignant revelations as drunken ramblings or crazy rants, both actresses have a knack for the rhythm and nuances of his imaginative lines.
In one scene, grandmother Maria Josefa, dreaming of children with white hair—a welcome change from the dark house—says, "We'll all be like the waves, one after another. And then we'll sit down and we'll all have white heads and we'll be the foam of the sea. Why isn't there any foam here? Nothing but mourning shawls." Within the seeming nonsense, Maria expresses the desire for freedom that the daughters repress.
Complementing the lush language is a beautiful set. With caked, clay walls and an amazing manipulation of angles (the start of a staircase, the hint of a hallway), designer Ed McNamee maximizes the small space. Rounding out the church imagery is the set, shaped like the tip of a cross—two arched doorways on each side and an indented alcove at the rear—just like the front of a cathedral. As Bernarda spends most of her time in the center, beneath a hanging cross, it gives the appearance of a priest saying Mass.
Before the play began, O'Neill offered two telling explanations. The first was for the freezing temperature: "It should get warmer when the lights come on," she said. The second was for the cramped space: "You're going to feel very close to the actors."
Interestingly, both the cold and the congestion catapulted the audience into Bernarda's chilling prison. If this was intentional, it was brilliant. If not, all directors should be so lucky as to have apologies work this perfectly in their favor.