It’s a brief passage in the novel, not even a fully realized scene. That was all Svich needed to start typing.
“That line was something I wanted to keep,” the playwright says from her apartment in New York, where she splits her time with Los Angeles. “And that became central to the way I crafted the piece theatrically. . . . One of the tricks of the novel that you catch up with is that Alba is one of the narrators. I thought, okay, why don’t we start with her when she’s in prison?”
Zayas elaborates: “In the novel, it’s something that happens in a paragraph, in a sentence, in a moment that’s meant to be very brief. In the adaptation, it’s the point of the adaptation. The adaptation occurs the moment where Clara and Alba can come together to tell the story.”
Thus, instead of the immortal opening sentence of the novel — “Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy” — the play begins by foreshadowing the torture that the rest of the drama will lead up to. And there’s an early hint at a means to endure. Alba, played by New York-based Chilean actress Natalia Miranda-Guzman, steps outside the initial torture scene and says:
“From bruises, wounds, cuts I don’t recognize, an ocean of words surrounds me, as I walk through the ruins of notebooks that open up into the rooms of an empty house, a great big house on a corner, that once belonged to my grandmother. Clara’s voice echoes through halls of pages that speak of a past, and future, recorded in glimpses of scattered memory.”
At this point the stage-set is covered with screen projections of flowing words drawn from the novel, words as a presence and an environment. Only then does the scene shift to a garden, with Barrabas the dog, and Clara, who is played by stage and film actress Monica Steuer. Alba remains present, out of time, watching in her bloody shirt. For an instant, she and Clara catch each other’s gaze — “a look across time,” according to the stage directions.
In this way, Svich and Zayas establish the narrative rules of the drama, in which the past unfolds simultaneously with the future consequences of that past. Alba is always on stage, absorbing stories that took place before she was born.
The director’s challenge is to accomplish smooth transitions between the 39 short scenes that make up the play of 2 hours and 20 minutes, recreating the fluidity of the novel.
“To me, this whole play is a transition,” says Zayas, co-founder and artistic director of the Immediate Theater Company in New York. “It’s all driven by the actors. Really, it’s a director’s gift and challenge, and it’s scary.”