Judging from "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The House of Bernarda Alba," Spain was a hellish place in the 1930s and 1940s.
In "Pan," the movie playing at the State Theatre, a military captain mercilessly terrorizes a village. In "Alba," the play running at Prospect Theater Project, a mother mercilessly terrorizes her daughters while their neighbors stone to death a woman who falls short of the town's moral standards.
While far less violent than "Pan" (the stoning happens off stage), "Alba" is packed with almost as much venom. Anger, bitterness and hatred are the dominant emotions in director Jack Souza's taut production.
Federico Garcia Lorca wrote the all-female play in 1936 not long before he was executed by fascist rebels before the start of the Spanish Civil War. Along with "Blood Wedding" and "Yerma," it's part of a trilogy about the tragic life of Spanish women.
Following the death of her second husband, Bernarda Alba imposes an eight-year mourning period on her five single daughters, age 20 to 39, and forbids them to leave the house. Already barred from male contact, the women are aching for affection.
Just hearing the sounds of field hand's voices in the distance ignites their desire. Their ravenous stares in that scene made for one of the most arresting moments in Prospect's staging. But the most powerful emotions are reserved for the shocking ending, which had audiencemembers on the edge of their seats at Friday's opening night performance.
Dyanne Durr's Bernarda Alba is a frightening witch who has no problem slapping her daughters and calling them sluts and whores. Obsessed with what her neighbors think, she believes she must be a stern disciplinarian to preserve her daughters' reputation. Durr tries to bring out the character's compassionate side, but those are her least effective moments of an otherwise stellar performance. It's clear from the script that Bernarda hates and resents her children.
As eldest daughter Angustias, Marisa Marko is one of the most natural actresses in the show, making it easy to forget she is playing a part. She maintains her dignity even though she is treated terribly by both her mother and sisters. The child of Bernarda's first marriage, Angustias attracts envy because she has the biggest inheritance and is the only one who has been allowed to get engaged.
Though some of the other daughters occasionally over act, they all seem comfortable with each other and act as if they are a real family.
Megan Lynch exudes vitality as Adela, the youngest daughter and the only one who hasn't given up on love. Mary Beth Vierra, Elizabeth Raven and Ashley Rose Tacheira, who play the remaining daughters, complain and argue with everyone else on the candlelit patio of the family's state home designed by Brian Swander.
Mary Pieczarka's La Poncia, the family's longtime maid, is an incorrigible gossip who stirs up trouble between the sisters. As Bernarda's loony mother, who is kept locked up in the house most of the time, Heike Hambley speaks uncomfortable truths.
Every person who lives in Bernarda Alba's home is miserable and at times selfish and unforgiving. They are all trapped by inflexible standards set up by their community, making this play a powerful cautionary tale about the consequences of repression.
'The House of Bernarda Alba'
Where: Prospect Theater Project, 520 Scenic Drive, Modesto; about 70 seats
When: Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m. and Sundays 2 p.m. through March 4
Running time: 1 hour and 20 minutes; no intermission
Information: 549-9341 or www.prospecttheaterproject.org