Lopez’s revisited ‘Yerma’: A riveting, tragic journey

Nadine Malouf (Yerma) in “YERMA” at Huntington Theatre Company Photo: T. Charles Erickson

BOSTON – As the Huntington Theatre Company’s playwright in residence, Melinda Lopez has explored several aspects of her Cuban-American heritage and the country itself in works such as “Sonia Flew” – which opened the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts 15 years ago – “Mala” and “Becoming Cuba.”                                                                                   

For her latest play, she has turned to one of the greatest Spanish poets of the 20th Century – Federico Garcia Lorca – and his play “Yerma..” The idea for the work was conceived by Lopez and Melia Bensussen, who directs, and translated and adapted by Lopez.                                       

The retooled “Yerma” is having its world premiere production through June 30 in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.                                                                       

Lorca’s work was first staged in 1934, two years before he was killed by right-wing elements of the Spanish military. It is the story of a woman living deep in the country, fixated on becoming a mother, only to see the dream erode and disintegrate through the years.                                       

“Yerma” has an emotional, mystical quality about it – as if  it is often hard to distinguish between events that are happening in real life or events – as they may be  — that are occurring only in Yerma’s mind. That is no coincidence, as Lorca was strongly influenced by the Surrealist movement and his friendship with Salvador Dali.

Christian Barillas (Juan) and Nadine Malouf (Yerma) in “Yerma.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

This is also a piece in which music plays a strong part in setting the mood and tone and helping to propel the action forward. Composer Mark Bennett wrote the flamenco-style music to accompany songs written by Lorca and translated and reframed by Lopez to fit more neatly into the context of the story. The music is skillfully and passionately performed by Guitarist Juanito Pascual and Percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo.                                                                                       

Nadine Malouf brings earthiness and passion to the role of Yerma (Nadine Malouf). Her relationship with husband Juan (Christian Barillas) seems loving and sound, although he believes that a man’s first place is to be at work, even if that sometimes interferes with Yerma’s desires to start a family.                                                                                                                              

There is a circle of women who surround Yerma, sharing secrets, gossip, or – in some cases – child-bearing advice, wanted or unwanted. Everywhere Yerma goes in her town, she is reminded of her status as a barren woman.                                                                                                           

She gets family advice – of a sort — early on from an older woman named Incarnacion (Alma Cuervo) who has had 14 children, five of whom died, who advises Yerma to “take a lover, and makes sure he looks like him (Juan).”                                                                                                 

Her friend Maria (Marianna Bassham) tells Yerma she is lucky to have no children because “children take a lot out of you” but later, when she sees the look in Yerma’s eyes as she cuddles Maria’s newborn,  she becomes fearful of coming around any more.                                                   

Melinda Lopez the actress provides solid support for Lopez the playwright, subbing for the ill Jacqui Parker as Delores, part of a talented ensemble that also includes Evelyn Howe and Alexandra Illesca.                                                                                                                               

Ernie Pruneda is also solid as Victor, a handsome neighbor and longtime friend whose mere presence makes Juan nervous. Eventually, Juan drafts two spinster sisters to come to the home and keep watch over Yerma, further frustrating and isolating her as her friends with children slowly drift away.                                                                                                                        

With each passing year and with the clock ticking, the pressures building within Yerma must find release somehow, some way.                                                                                                                   

 It will end tragically, with all concerned victims of an unsatisfied obsession, a dream delayed and finally denied, and passion and love being not enough to keep a troubled woman from going off the rails.

For much of the 90 minutes of “Yerma,” it is like watching a car crash in slow motion. We suspect what is waiting for us at the end, but the cast, Lopez’s adept adaptation and Director Bensussen keep us riveted to the journey.

The Huntington Theatre Company production of “Yerma.” Conceived by Melia Bensussen and Melinda Lopez. Adapted and translated by Melinda Lopez. Based on the play by Federico Garcia Lorca. Performances through June 30 in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. Box office: 617 266 0800 or huntingtontheatre.org.