Review—The Boston Globe

A tragic collision of expectations in the Huntington’s ‘Yerma’

By Don Aucoin Globe Staff,June 13, 2019

It was 15 years ago that Melinda Lopez’s “Sonia Flew’’ became the inaugural production at the brand-new Wimberly Theatre, her intercultural family drama heralding the fulfillment of the playwright’s early promise as it opened a second stage for the Huntington Theatre Company inside the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion.

Lopez’s relationship with the Huntington has only grown closer since then — she’s the company’s playwright-in-residence — and now she’s back at the Wimberly, conjuring an absorbing dreamscape with a lyrical adaptation and translation of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 “Yerma.’’

Literally back at the Wimberly. Lopez, who is also a veteran actress of note, stepped into the breach when cast member Jacqui Parker had to bow out due to illness. She’s taking on Parker’s roles for the remainder of the run, demonstrating the kind of multi-tasking versatility that helped earn Lopez the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence last month from the Boston Theater Critics Association.

A slender but insightful work that examines the limitations on a woman’s life and the consequences that can flow from those limitations, “Yerma’’ is directed in suitably stylized fashion by Melia Bensussen, who is also having a busy June, given that this month she is taking over as artistic director at Hartford Stage.

Lorca, a Spanish dramatist and poet who was murdered by Nationalist forces two years after “Yerma’’ premiered, had no truck with realistic drama, and the play’s poeticized language may at times sound stilted or melodramatic to contemporary ears. But at its best it approaches the incantatory cadences — and the life-or-death stakes — we associate with Greek tragedy.

Such tragedies often revolve around a protagonist (Oedipus, Medea) who is prone to all-or-nothing absolutism and wont to go to extremes — and that’s a destination Yerma also seems inexorably headed for as she becomes increasingly obsessed with having a child. A farm wife portrayed by Nadine Malouf, Yerma is given to rhapsodizing about “what can come shining out of your own body.’’ She predicts confidently: “When there’s a child, I’ll forget all time before.’’

That’s a lot of weight to put on a relationship, as we say nowadays. Sure enough, as the years pass and Yerma is unable to conceive, tension and distrust grow between her and her husband, Juan (an expressive Christian Barillas). Friction steadily escalates as “Yerma’’ unfolds on a field of dandelions (the set design is by Cameron Anderson), punctuated by Mark Bennett’s evocative, flamenco-inspired music, which is performed by guitarist Juanito Pascual and percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo, located just off stage. At the center of the stage is a bed, at first a scene of Yerma and Juan’s ardor but soon a grim reminder of where the trouble is.

Yerma’s anguish is exacerbated by the fact that she is constantly surrounded by evidence of the fertility of others, from an older woman named Incarnacion (a pungently funny Alma Cuervo) who has nine sons and advises her to take a lover, to her newly married friend, Maria (Marianna Bassham), who tries to sneak past Yerma’s door while pushing a baby carriage, hoping to avoid causing pain.

In Bensussen’s staging, the other women of the village (in addition to Bassham and Cuervo, they are played by Evelyn Howe and Alexandra Illescas) always seem to be hovering, observing, commenting. There’s virtually no physical space between private and public.

The effect is to underscore the ways in which Yerma is caught between —and almost unable to distinguish between — her own expectations of what her life should be and the expectations of her intrusive community.