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Melinda Lopez bears witness in ‘Mala’

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Melinda Lopez bears witness in ‘Mala’
Melinda Lopez in the ArtsEmerson production of “Mala,” directed by David Dower, at the Huntington Theatre Company, South End/Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. (Photo: Paula Marotta)

“Tu eres mala!” (“You are bad!”), curses an angry mother as her daughter dispatches her against her will to a hospital after a bad fall.

This daughter is played by playwright Melinda Lopez in her semiautobiographical one-act play, “Mala,” on stage at the Boston Center for the Arts through Feb. 4 in an ArtsEmerson production presented by the Huntington Theatre Company.

The cursed daughter explains, “Mala means bad. But more than bad, it means your essential self is bad. Not that you have done something bad, but that you are — in your core — bad.”

Mala is the play’s narrator and sole character, a role performed by Lopez that is somewhat modeled on herself. Like Lopez, Mala is a Cuban-American reflecting on the harrowing experience of caring for terminally ill parents. Lopez, the Huntington Playwright-in-Residence since 2013, wrote the play shortly after the death of her father and subsequently, the loss of her mother.

Pain and humor

This production is directed by David Dower, ArtsEmerson artistic director, with the same team he led to stage the 2016 world premiere of the play, which won that year’s Elliot Norton Award for Best New Script.

Performing her play, which runs 80 minutes with no intermission, Lopez engages the audience as soon as she strides onto the small stage of the BCA’s Roberts Studio Theatre. Exuding candor, warmth and humor, she launches an intimate conversation about a tough truth — that even though she is the good daughter who “signed on” to take care of her parents, and intended to “do this with some grace,” she found that her best efforts fell far short of her ideals.

Wearing a V-neck sweater, trousers and sneakers, her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense knot, Lopez is in almost constant motion, as, with a mug of coffee in hand, she tells stories with her words, voice and body.

As the ambulance takes off with her mother, she utters the word “Mala” in a long, siren-like wail, transforming a painful memory into a terrific moment of comedy. Later, when her monologue takes a confessional turn, Lopez pounds her chest in remorse, although it never becomes quite clear why she needs to be forgiven.

Her Mala creates a host of scenes and characters, including herself, recollecting strange, funny and painful episodes while taking care of her dying mother, a period that coincided with Boston’s hellish 2015 winter, when the city was buried in snow until March.

Her older sister (“the bad cop”), flies into town just in time to take their ailing 92-year-old father to the Registry and renew his driver’s license, much to Mala’s chagrin. Mala’s Italian-American friend Gina, a dog groomer, tells of helping her addled mother locate her lost head. A hospice nurse “with the metabolism of a hummingbird” assures Mala that her mother is “doing great.” Mala asks, “Isn’t she … you know … not doing so great?” The nurse replies, “Oh sure, but you should see my other patients!”

Reflecting on her sister’s career as a drug researcher leads to a riff on “mouse blood” and the findings from injecting the blood of young mice into their elders, who take on the behaviors of their source. Her fatigue and the Boston winter prompt a dream evoking the legendary Eskimo ritual in which the dying are sent out to sea on an ice floe.

Poetry is fundamental to the play, and not just when Mala, by the bedside of her dying father, memorizes lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding,” a contemplation of dust and death triggered by the sight of ash on an old man’s sleeve.

Mala’s narrative does not progress in chronological order. Instead, she braids memories into an intertwined stream of scenes, the way they might surface in dreams or in moments of reflection.

She groups her stories by titles, like chapter headings in a book, and mingles the surreal and poetic with everyday language and events. When writing the play, Lopez drew from impromptu text messages she typed into her iPhone, often after hair-raising events. These tweet-length messages became free-floating fragments of raw, surreal interior monologues.

Now and then, Mala takes up her cellphone and types in a phrase that appears on a screen behind her. Speaking of her mother, she types, “She won’t rest until I am dead,” and later, “I dreamed I had no navel. I never grew in her womb or breathed her blood. I sprang fully formed from the head of my father.”

The production’s marvelous, sympathetic staging complements the mingling of daily realities with inner life that shapes Lopez’s script and fine, utterly natural performance.

The economical set by Kristine Holmes blends the evocative and everyday in a cool blue-and-white palette. Three panels covered by transparent curtains form a backdrop to the sparely equipped stage. On the left, a white brocade chair and small table stand on a slightly raised platform. In the center of the stage is a stool and to the right is a hallstand. Scott Pinkney’s lighting shifts from daylight to mottled clouds, and accents the few props — a bowl of orange clementines, red boots, a red strap for dog walking and a Pendleton blanket that figures in Mala’s Arctic dream. When Mala mimics her mother’s long siren-like wail, flickering lights imitate the flashing light of an ambulance.

Subtitles appearing on the panels translate Spanish phrases or display words that Mala says as she introduces characters or switches topics. Arshan Gailus’s sound design accompanies poignant moments with delicate threads of music.

These ever-shifting episodes and characters keep the monologue moving as, with candor and humor, Mala “bears witness” to the decline and death of her parents and to her own limitations as caregiver. But most memorable is Lopez’s portrayal of her mother’s rage, fear and fierce will as, for a while, she defies a dire diagnosis. “Mala” is a tribute to the dying as well as those who remain by their side.