Review: YERMA

by Lynn on February 10, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Coal Mine Theatre, 2076 Danforth at Woodbine, (actually around the corner of the building up Woodbine). Playing until March 5, 2023.

Written by Simon Stone (after Federico Garcia Lorca)

Directed by Diana Bentley

Set and lighting by Kaitlin Hickey

Costumes by Joshua Quinlan

Sound design and music composition by Keith Thomas

Props by Kayla Chaterji

Cast: Martha Burns

Sarah Gadon

Daren A. Herbert

Louise Lambert

Michelle Mohammed

Johnathan Sousa

Playwright Simon Stone’s reimagining of  Yerma, Federico Garcia Lorca’s lush play , about a woman desperate to have a baby, is now set in the sterile, cold present. Director Diana Bentley’s production does not shy away from the challenge. Generally fine acting.

Background. Federico Garcia Lorca wrote Yerma in 1934. It’s set in rural Spain and is about Yerma, a young woman, two years married, who is desperate to have a baby. That desperation comes from her biological yearning and the cultural, societal and religious (Catholic) hold that married women must procreate as their duty. Everywhere she looks there are signs of fertility and vibrant life. Her husband Juan is a successful farmer whose crops are lush and thriving. Every married woman around her is either pregnant or has children. Yerma senses the looks of disapproval from the people around her about her inability to conceive. Juan does not seem interested in fathering a child. Yerma is driven to despair and does something drastic.

The Story. Playwright Simon Stone’s play is set in 2016 in London, but permission was given to director Diana Bentley to set it in Toronto with Canadian references. Every character is named except the ‘title’ character. Instead of being named “Yerma” she is only referred to in the cast list as “Her.” Every character is called by name during the play, but not the title character. Interesting. Simon Stone denies her even this simple means of identity.

“Her” is 33 years old, in a long-term relationship with John and seemingly enjoying the physical intimacy with him. She works at a publication as an editor and also has a successful blog in which she posts about all things personal. He is a successful businessman. She has been thinking about her biological clock and says to him that she would like to try for a baby. He is caught up short. This is new from her. “Her’s” sister, Mary is pregnant without actually wanting a baby with her wayward husband. This drives “Her” more to want a child. There are tests, timetables in which to adhere for the ‘right time of the month’ to conceive’, fertility courses to follow. John tries to be supportive. “Her’s distant, cold mother, Helen, is not helpful with support. A former lover, Victor, appears who coincidentally has just started writing at the paper where “Her” works. She blogs about all of it, generally not informing or asking permission of the people involved.  After several years of trying there is still no baby. Her’s” emotions go through the roof. Relationships spiral out of control and so does “Her.”

The Production. Playwright Simon Stone has set his play in 2016 in the bustling city. He has a precise vision of what that means. When the program says “after Garcia Lorca” I often got the sense that it’s an ‘after-thought’ to Garcia Lorca, therefore even more of a remove from the original. Gone are the subtle but clear evidence of fertility, lushness perhaps even fecundity, except with Mary (Louise Lambert). In its place is a heightened sterility, coldness, lack of connection. This is a world of people who speak in unfinished sentences that others have to finish or misunderstand. This is a world in which even the most intimate details of one’s life are publicly posted on a blog that racks up the ‘likes’ ‘shares’ or ‘hearts’ as long as it’s trending. Nothing is secret. All is postable. “Her” (Sarah Gadon) feels that that is acceptable for her blog and can’t seem to understand the ire of John (Daren A. Herbert) or Mary when they realize their secrets are now public. The only thing missing in Simon Stone’s dialogue is a character who uses the vapid word “like” after every fifth word. At times the play’s modernity seems to diminish the depth of the original.

But as “Her” maneuvers through this modern, superficial world, Simon Stone illuminates “Her’s” depth of despair, with every failed fertility trial; with every attempt to have John stay home and not travel for his successful work so they can keep to the schedule of sex when she is at her most ‘ready’; with every visit of her sister, Mary, to remind “Her” she has no children. Stone takes us gently down that spiraling path with “Her,” unable to escape the inevitable.

The audience sits on all four sides of Kaitlin Hickey’s sunken stark white set. Any prop is brought on for a scene then removed. The set is a perfect metaphor for ‘sterile.’ For the black-outs between scenes, Keith Thomas has created a sound design/composition that involves the sound of quick breaths as one might hear in heightened sex. Along with this are variations on throbbing, pounding music that accentuate what might be the heightened rhythm of sex, or the suggestion of it. Brilliant.  

In the first scene “Her” and John are celebrating the purchase of their new home. He is glib. She is coy. The banter of Sarah Gadon as “Her” and Daren A. Herbert as John, is playful, sexually charged and intimate. There is a tactile familiarity between the two that is beautifully orchestrated by director Diana Bentley. As it becomes obvious that “Her” is serious about having a child, Daren A. Herbert as John tries to deflect it with playfulness. Over time Daren A. Herbert infuses John with a frustration as deep as “Her’s”. He is trying to please “Her” trying to make “Her” happy with being there for the endless fertility tries, but the hopelessness of the situation wears him down, as it does “Her.” Both Daren A. Herbert and Sarah Gadon as “Her” are electrifying in their desperation.

Diana Bentley stages the actors to easily move about the space, and often creates a deliberate sense of distance between “Her” and the others. “Her’s” mother Helen, played with commanding coldness by Martha Burns, loathes getting close to anybody. At one point she fairly shudders when attempting to hug “Her.” That speaks volumes about the childhood “Her” had. “Her’s” sister Mary, played beautifully by Louise Lambert, has her own issues of husband abandonment and does not want a baby, but seems to conceive easily.

At one point “Her” wants to plant tomatoes and figs in a garden—what an image of sexuality those figs conjure up. She plants a young, healthy tree in a pot in the backyard. The leaves of the tree are vibrant green and shiny. Later, the pot is gone. “Her” says the tree died. I think it is a missed opportunity to actually show a withered, dead tree in the pot rather than tell of its dying. It puts in stark view that everything “Her” touches, withers or never develops into life. Still, what is in this compelling production is vivid, gripping and heart-squeezing.

Comment. Yerma is a production of ‘firsts.’ It’s the first production of Coal Mine Theatre in this new space, after a devastating fire in September destroyed their old space. It’s the commanding, assured directorial debut of Diana Bentley—along with Ted Dykstra, the fearless leaders of Coal Mine Theatre. It’s also the theatrical debut of Sarah Gadon who has created a successful career in film and television. Her fine work in Yerma gradually builds to a gut-twisting resolution. At each turn challenges are met head on. Simon Stone has written an interesting treatment of Garcia Lorca’s play. The creative folks and cast at the Coal Mine Theatre make it another production to see, this time at their spanking-new space.

Coal Mine Theatre Presents:

Opened: February 9, 2023.

Closes: March 5 (held over), 2023.

Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes approx. (no intermission)

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