Yerma in the Desert
Reviewed by Lara J. Altunian
Urban Theatre Movement at Greenway Court Theatre
Through December 16
An unhappy marriage, catty colleagues and the impending threat of Trump’s wall — Yerma in the Desert takes an in-depth look at the life of a Mexican custodian working at a university in a post-election world. Inspired by Federico García Lorca’s Yerma, Oliver Mayer’s play examines one woman’s unshaken desire to be a mother and what it means for her to live in a world without love.
Yerma (Jean Murillo) has been working for years at an unnamed university located in the Southwest, along with her ambitious husband Juan (Anthony Bryce Graham). She is content to clean university dormitories while Juan, who is shooting to join the police force, demeans her by saying that she is at “the bottom of the totem pole.” Also, despite playfully flirting with her, he pulls away when she tries to kiss him.
Yerma’s desire to have a baby, her troubling, longtime crush on her friend Victor (Paul Tully), Juan’s colleague in the police, and the envy she feels toward her best friend Olga (Marilyn Fitoria), who is (unhappily) pregnant, make for a disastrous personal life. Her workplace becomes unbearable when rumors fly about Yerma, Juan and Victor’s relationship, even as the janitorial staff must deal with racist “Trump babies” threatening their jobs.
Mayer’s work examines the widespread effects of entitlement and the self-serving attitudes of people on every social scale, as well as the ways in which a community may be torn down through greed. The overt jealousy that Yerma’s coworkers — Rhoda (Meghan Lewis) and Rita (Gisla Stringer) — have of her youth and optimism strongly contributes to the sour interactions between her and her husband. Meanwhile, Juan’s priority for getting ahead at work over his wife’s happiness precipitates their final downfall. Yerma is continuously punished for her love and honor as she realizes that those around her — family, friends and country — are unwilling to reciprocate her dedication and commitment.
Murillo’s performance showcases the depth of her character’s convictions. Brenda Banda plays Trini, Yerma’s take-charge boss willing to help her in her situation, adding complexity to the production. Edgar Landa and Marlene Forte’s co-direct on a two-sided set (Sarah Steinman) that enhances the action with both cause-and-effect sequences and mirrored ones — quintessential in driving the story forward. Musical transitions distract from the frequent set changes while maintaining continuity, thanks to Yerma’s frequent humming and the consistent presence of a boom box or some other source of sound on stage.
The play slows a bit in the later half as excessive dialogue unnecessarily drags out some of the scenes. But a quick climax and an unexpected ending refocus the plot in a powerful way that makes a strong final impression.
Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Hollywood; Fri., 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 16. (323) 673-0544 or http://www.greenwaycourttheatre.org/yerma/. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.