Supernatural events figure occasionally in “La casa de los espiritus/ The House of the Spirits,” Caridad Svich’s play about four generations of a Latin American family coping with social and political turmoil. So it’s apt enough that an elegant spookiness should surface, now and then, in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s resonant production of the drama, which is based on the novel by Isabel Allende.
Looping white words scroll across vertical surfaces, like lines of phantom handwriting. Anatomical drawings, architectural plans and other images — a mantelpiece, a fast-moving clock, a bank of candle flames — eerily appear and disappear inside giant picture frames. An enormous, blindfolded face hovers in the air, mirroring the spectacle of a blindfolded woman huddled toward the back of the stage.
These haunting sequences appear courtesy of projection designer Alex Koch, one of several talents behind the gorgeous look of this production, directed by Jose Zayas. (The show is performed in Spanish with English surtitles.) Complementing the shifting projections is Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s poignant set: Bone-white books, chairs, garden implements and other domestic items jumbled together in heaps, as if in an overcrowded attic.
These pale furnishings represent the family heritage of Alba (Natalia Miranda-Guzman), whose grandfather, Esteban Trueba (Nelson Landrieu), is a conservative landlord in an unnamed Latin American country. (The country is not unlike Allende’s native Chile.) When Alba is detained and tortured by the military government her grandfather supports, she keeps her grip on sanity by remembering tales of family members, including her quietly rebellious mother Blanca (Nancy Flores) and clairvoyant grandmother Clara (Monica Steuer). Class conflicts, political and ideological developments, and decades-long loyalties and resentments bear upon the clan’s saga — and, looking back, Alba can see connections and chains of causality that were once invisible.
Koch’s projections play a key role in suggesting Alba’s fevered perspective on the story; for example, the floating cursive words, like the frequent typewriter-key clicking in Jane Shaw’s atmospheric sound design, make it clear that the young woman is gradually turning into an author who will write the family history down. Meanwhile, Joseph R. Walls’s lighting design — harsh whites, lurid reds, luxuriant ambers — helps render the ambiance grim, suspenseful and buoyantly nostalgic, by turns.
Into this environment, the actors bring characterizations that succinctly evoke both individuality and shifting social forces. (They are aided by Ivania Stack’s expressive costumes.) Steuer does a particularly nice job taking Clara from a gleeful child in pigtails to an ethereal bride to a sadder, pragmatic matron. Landrieu executes a comparable arc, turning the domineering young Esteban Trueba into a more sympathetic older figure. Carlos Castillo nails the squirrely menace of Esteban Garcia, Alba’s tormentor, whose cruelty advertises itself even in the brutal way he stirs a cup of soup. In addition to channeling the jaunty charisma of Pedro, Blanca’s lower-class lover, actor Antonio Vargas animates an important dog puppet. (Ingrid Crepeau is puppet designer.)
Looking vulnerable in jeans and a blood-stained T-shirt, Miranda-Guzman’s Alba often stands dazedly on the outskirts of scenes, watching her forebears interact. When she slips back into her own time, the production’s evocation of detention and torture can be relatively intense. The leitmotif-like recurrence of the abuse scenes, and Svich’s canny streamlining of Allende’s epic plot, give the staged “House of the Spirits” a bracing, hard-eyed focus.
But thanks to the evocative design, and the assured touch of Zayas (who has directed the play in New York and elsewhere), it’s a focus that draws us in.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.
by Caridad Svich, based on Isabel Allende’s novel. Directed by Jose Zayas; properties design, Sofia Gawer-Fische; technical director, Andres Luque; songs by Svich, with musical arrangements by Jane Shaw. With Marycarmen Wila, Manolo Santalla, Marian Licha, Belen Oyola-Rebaza and Anabel Marcano. In Spanish with English surtitles (English translation by Svich). About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through March 10 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington. Call (800) 494-8497 or (202) 234-7174, or visit www.galatheatre.org.