Although advance word purports that The House That Will Not Stand is based upon The House of Bernarda Alba, the similarity between Marcus Gardley’s new drama and Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic proves to be more incidental than otherwise at New York Theatre Workshop.
The House of Bernarda Alba is stark and dark and tragic. The House That Will Not Stand is a rococo creation, replete with rich, colorful language, serious themes relating to race and freedom, plenty of laughs, and a surfeit of twisted storylines. It is a simmering and flavorful dramatic jambalaya set in old New Orleans, circa 1813, steaming with voodoo and rivalries and possibly murder, complete with a madwoman dancing in the attic and a corpse laid out in the parlor.
“Your house is going to fall, Beartrice Albans. You may be the wealthiest colored woman in New Orleans but you built this house on sand, lies and dead bodies,” rages La Veuve (Marie Thomas), a venomous enemy, early in the drama. “Soon, it will loose its foundations and come crumbling down on you like a boot crushing a fat head cockroach.”
An imposing matron, Beartrice (Lynda Gravátt) appears to be a successful exemplar of the era’s placage system, in which free women of color lived profitably in contractual unions with white men. Now Beartrice’s extralegal spouse lies newly dead and Louisiana is about to be annexed by the United States, which is likely to diminish her freedom unless she grabs her inheritance fast. Meanwhile, Agnes (Nedra McClyde), her reckless eldest daughter, demands to attend a masked ball that will showcase her as a beauty up for bidding on the placage market.
But Beartrice has different plans for Agnes and her other two daughters: Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), the rebellious youngest, and Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield), the Jesus-obsessed middle child. Other characters key to this heavily-plotted story are Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson), Beartrice’s semi-crazy sister, and Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), an all-knowing household slave whose expertise in dark voodoo arts raises the dead during a stormy second act.
All of these women are seeking freedom in one way or another, whether it’s from their mother, their past sins, or their status in an increasingly repressive society. “This world got all kinds of chains,” remarks one of them.
The playwright rattles these various chains vigorously during the increasingly noisy and somewhat confusing latter parts of his engrossing, yet busy, two-act drama. Gardley undeniably whips up luscious language and vivid images, but some of this tasty (and often funny) dialogue is muffled through overly-hasty pacing and poor diction.
Lileana Blain-Cruz, the director, stages a visually impressive, generally well-acted show, but the rapid delivery of Cajun dialects interferes at times with audience comprehension. It might have helped had the theater also provided program notes regarding Louisiana’s absorption by the United States as well as detail about the placage system.
Although the drama intermittently turns murky, the voodoo séance is a wonderfully eerie sequence, thanks to the power of Foy’s charismatic presence and performance as Makeda, abetted by Justin Ellington’s sound design and Yi Zhao’s supernatural lighting. Adam Rigg’s spacious grey-white setting, featuring tall, louvered windows, crystal chandeliers, an elegant staircase, and Empire-style furniture, offers suitable environs.
One wonders whether the production would be still more effective had an artist other than Gravátt been cast in the crucial role of Beartrice. Dressed by designer Montana Levi Blanco in voluminous widow’s weeds, Gravátt stumps through the story as a cantankerous, croaky-voiced old dowager who appears happiest when raising hell. But Gardley also happens to give this deeply-shaded character a certain sexual magnetism and feline charm that Gravátt’s formidable performance does not at all suggest.
While this New York premiere does not fully achieve the play’s potential, The House That Will Not Stand remains a thoughtful, multi-layered work regarding a little-known period and its practices in American social history.