Caregiver Vents and Mourns in “Mala”

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company and ArtsEmerson
Written and performed by Melinda Lopez
Directed by David Dower

Jan. 6 – Feb. 4, 2018
Calderwood Pavilion
Boston Center for the Arts
Boston, MA

Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston, MA) “Dying doesn’t make you wise,” says Melinda Lopez, describing the death of her tough, stubborn mother. “Dying doesn’t make you generous.” The words could serve as the thesis of Mala, a story of a loyal daughter processing guilt and bitterness over the death of her elderly parents. Baked into the subject matter is a grim but gentle humor, one that picks at the coat of polish usually applied to recollections of the grieving process. Lopez’s pain, here, is visceral and true, not some softly lit movie set.

The theater for Mala, upon entering, is filled with the “thud-wump” of a heartbeat. The white stage is washed in blue paint, like snow drifts and their shadows. Snowflakes are projected on white screens. Far from serene, Dramaturg P. Carol, Set Designer Kristine Holmes, and Projection Designer Ari Herzig evoke the claustrophobia of the Boston winter of 2015. “The Snowpocalypse” that shattered previous records held in the city for snowfall serves as the backdrop for the decline of Lopez’s mother.

But in some ways, the way Melinda Lopez’s story is bound to that winter is a red herring. It’s just another source of stress for her recollections. That winter is important, but not more important than the other tasks she describes balancing at that time: parenting her daughter, going to work, dealing with EMTs, and, eventually, hospice care. Life goes on even if the life of the mother, with whom she has a loving but difficult relationship, will not. For those who have witnessed the decline of an older relative, perhaps a grandparent frustrated with their own dementia and health troubles, this all rings deeply true. Getting old and dying doesn’t endow someone with grace, but often frustration and anger at the unfairness of a long journey’s end.

Lopez’s decision not to sugarcoat the pain both she and her mother experience makes this show unique. She shares the notes she managed to type into her iPhone’s note-taking tool during this time. One of the notes is, “She won’t stop until I’m dead.” Another note describes a dream where Lopez has no navel and, therefore, no mother.

While Lopez puts on her mother’s Cuban accent and her own voice with a practiced ease, she admits on stage that, despite growing up in Boston, she has little command of the Boston accent. Her impressions of friends going through similar crises with aging parents do not evoke the same involvement or urgency. How could they? This is Melinda Lopez’s story, from the specificity of her mother’s rough background in Cuba to the very title, “Mala”–”bad girl,” something her mother accuses her caregivers of being on her worst days.

The play doesn’t so much end as dissolve. Lopez makes peace with the passing of her parents with a real difficulty. Listening to how she recounts her father’s final minutes is sublime, tragic, and evocative, in direct contrast to the more difficult way her mother recedes. Holding to the stated theme of the show, the act of death doesn’t magically make the unfolding complications surrounding it purer or more important. It’s just the end of a journey, a letting go of a valued life.

Queen’s Note:
We elected a thin-skinned Nazi to the office of the President who is turning our “democracy” into a fascist, totalitarian oligarchy dominated by the 1%. Trump is a monster. His policies, when he names them, are destructive. His narcissistic behavior is more so.

Congressional “negotiators” released a spending bill that saves the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for Humanities, and National Public Radio until September at which time, the President and his impotent cronies may still cut arts funding. It is ever important to remain vigilant. And, for the love of all that’s sacred, keep creating. If you need help, ask for it. Our existence is our resistance. May the force be with you. – KD

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