Simon Stone’s adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s YERMA is set in contemporary London, though Coal Mine Theatre’s crisp, minimalist production—the first in their new space!—has been distinctly Toronto-fied with references to Parkdale and John Tory. The story centres around a woman we only get to know as “Her.” The crucial thing we understand about her is that she wants a baby. It’s an all consuming obsession; at first whimsical and adventurous, her maternal fixation gradually becomes manic and grotesque.
We open on Her (Sarah Gadon) and husband John (Daren A. Herbert)—youngish, urban professionals—in the empty living room of their newly purchased home. Joshua Quinlan’s costumes will become subtly motivic as the story unfolds, but at the top, the chic attire suggests affluence and comfort. This couple is a tipsy portrait of white-collar success, celebrating their ambition and achievements with a bottle of champagne and clever banter. It is here that she first raises the topic of a child. Though taken aback by the proposal, and demonstrably hesitant, he’s game enough.
The play then gives us snapshots of their life together over the next five years. Their attempts to conceive go unrewarded. This vacancy begins to wreak havoc on all aspects of their relationship. Domestic squabbles ensue as his business trips and her exposé blog posts about fertility problems strain their partnership.
Providing some context for her intense and specific attitude towards maternity, she is surrounded by a tightly knit community witnessing the spectacle of her cumulative madness. Her mother Helen (Martha Burns) is a vain woman who has maintained a chilly emotional distance from her daughters. Her sister Mary (Louise Lambert) ends up having a child she doesn’t even seem to really want. A workmate with whom she has some history, Victor (Johnathan Sousa), is an awkward, endearing confidant. Another co-worker at their trendy lifestyle magazine, Des (Michelle Mohammed), is a hyper-enthusiastic representative of a new generation, helping her tap into the sensationalistic potential of her tell-all blog.
Kaitlin Hickey’s set is an austere, sunken area that gives the impression of an empty pool. It’s quite blunt in its evocation of a barren environment. We can feel Her inability to conceive well before it becomes a spoken reality. Kayla Chaterji’s distinctive props punctuate each scene; these objects make us ever more uncomfortably aware of the key absence.
Though quite well-to-do, with ample opportunity and potential, a fraught psyche begins to manifest in her physicality and altered clothing. Her poise falters and she becomes increasingly animalistic as unrestrained hormones, instinct and internalized social pressure begin to corrode her mind.
The play has a lot of say about the expectations placed on women of childbearing age. The pressures of career, of womanly identity, of maternal expectation—these begin to ravage her. Gadon is certainly fierce and committed in her embodiment of these stressors, but it was hard for me to connect to her devastating behaviour because the play makes her more of a statement than a person, her suffering more mythic than harrowing.
Herbert’s John, however, just ripped my damn heart out. He’s descending with her into this nightmare, but as a tethered observer, holding desperately onto a woman he loves and must watch fall apart before his eyes. He is, for me, the emotional centre of this production. Witty, intimidating and, eventually, entirely heartbreaking—he conveys all of this as authentic, wildly diverse aspects of a single, complex person.
Diana Bentley’s staging is punchy and efficient. She heightens our awareness of what people say or don’t say, where they place themselves and how their dynamic shifts from scene to scene. Sound designer Keith Thomas’ techno soundtrack pulses through the interstitial darkness between scenes, heightening tension and building our anticipation. As the light snaps on and the sound cuts out, we’re thrust into whatever caustic development awaits us.
I was deeply engaged throughout. The ending feels decidedly contrived though, a little too self-consciously poetic. I don’t really know Lorca’s play, but I’m aware of the original ending and it strikes me a significantly more… sincere?