Review

Inspired by Lorca, an L.A. playwright sets off in search of 'Yerma in the Desert'

Plays can be read many ways, especially when they’re as poetically abstract as Federico García Lorca’s “Yerma.”

His 1934 play about a woman scorned for being childless is often interpreted to be a criticism of Spain’s patriarchal practice of Catholicism at the time.

That reading, though, isn’t enough to make sense of Los Angeles playwright Oliver Mayer’s contemporized “Yerma in the Desert.” Set in the robustly multicultural milieu of today’s American Southwest, Mayer’s drama enfolds such issues as immigration, nationalism, white privilege, economic disparity, class mobility, cultural values and gender roles.

Mayer wrote the play for Urban Theatre Movement, which is presenting it as part of a residency with the Greenway Arts Alliance at the Greenway Court Theatre on the Fairfax High School campus.

The bare-bones staging is propelled more by enthusiasm than finesse. Still, it entertains while urging a closer look at the world around us.

The name of the central character, Yerma, means barren. In Mayer’s play she is a Latina janitorial worker in her late 20s (portrayed by Jean Murillo) at a university where her husband, Juan (Anthony Bryce Graham), is also employed.

He possesses a hip-hop swagger that she once must have found irresistible, but he keeps brushing off her desire to have a baby. It’s more important, he tells her, to land a better job, to rise in the world. That doesn’t explain why he can barely bring himself to touch her, though, or why he keeps demeaning her, telling her she stinks of the cleaning chemicals from her lowly work.

When the story widens to show their lives on campus, we see part of the problem. He has internalized the hierarchy of a world where he and Yerma work hard to create a sheltered, pampered existence for students and faculty yet are invisible or treated with outright hostility. One of Yerma’s colleagues recounts a run-in with a white student who has erected a cardboard wall in his dorm hallway to block the multicultural custodial crew — who, by the way, are a lively, fun to watch group.

As time advances, Yerma becomes ever more sullen about her childlessness and recedes into isolation. Juan grows solitary too, casting aside former allies.

The action’s progression follows Lorca’s, and as in the original a fair amount of music is employed. Mayer uses variations on the soul song “Ooh Child” as his main theme, also working in bits of Juan Luis Guerra and Bobby Brown.

Directors Marlene Forte (Mayer’s wife) and Edgar Landa insightfully guide the cast of 10, an effort enriched by warm, humorous performances by Brenda Banda (Urban Theatre Movement’s co-founder) as Yerma’s earthy supervisor, Paul Tully (the other co-founder) as a genial security officer who’s quietly in love with Yerma, and Spencer Weitzel as a professor specializing in fertility who awkwardly yet earnestly tries to help Yerma.

Sarah Steinman’s multipurpose set keeps the drudgery of custodial work ever within sight, and Elena Flores’ costumes lend context.

Mayer, best known for his boxing-world tale of social repression, “Blade to the Heat,” is committed to sociopolitical issues. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to Lorca, the author of the artfully barbed “Blood Wedding” and “House of Bernarda Alba” who was executed by Francoist fascists two years after “Yerma’s” premiere.

Yet the question remains: What does Yerma’s childlessness have to do with the broader issues at hand? Here’s my take. I read Lorca’s play as an allegory: Yerma is an improperly tended, barren Spain. Similarly, I see Mayer’s version as a depiction of today’s polarized America, where people of opposing viewpoints can’t bear to “touch” one another, leaving the country in a desiccating stalemate.

Other readings certainly are possible. That’s what’s great about theater; it takes on a new life in each viewer’s mind, expanding ever inward.

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‘Yerma in the Desert’

Where: Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; ends Dec. 16.

Tickets: $15-$40

Info: (323) 673-0544, www.GreenwayCourtTheatre.org/Yerma

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

daryl.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @darylhmiller

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