In a culture where family means everything, how can you hold firm to that which causes you so much anguish?
It’s a struggle at the center of the Ohio State Department of Theatre’s production of “The House of Spirits,” which spans three generations of the Trueba family in the 20th century in an unnamed Latin American country.
The play, based on Isabel Allende’s novel of the same name, was adapted for the stage by Caridad Svich. In what has been described as “magical realism,” a young woman, Alba, is held hostage by a brutal regime that her own grandfather, Esteban, helped bring to power.
The “magical” part of the story comes from Alba’s ability to communicate into the past with her grandmother, Clara, and Esteban.
While Alba’s monologues frame the work, the principal subject of interest is her grandfather.
After being embittered by his fiancée Rosa’s untimely death, Esteban makes a fortune for himself, but his ambitions come at a price. His obsession with control, and inability to maintain it, incessantly angers him, leading him to cruelly persecute members of his own family. He progressively alienates himself amid an ever-changing world that he cannot accept — every communist sympathy or mention of women’s rights drives him to rage.
Alba, confronted by her own horrors, retells his story and tries to reconcile his malice, hoping to find decency in her grandfather.
It’s a story of the burden of a tarnished past, relatable to anyone who’s dealt with abuse in their family. Alba tries to find love in what is the root of her problems.
OSU’s staging of the play is solemn and simple. A bleak gray stage, the actors carry the weight with only the help of intricate lighting to help carry the story.
Unfortunately at times, the acting isn’t quite strong enough to match the compelling struggle of its characters. The actresses playing Alba and Clara are convincing enough, but too many secondary cast members seemed like they were simply reciting the words while remembering to enunciate and throw in some campy gestures.
A third-year in theatre, Jesse Massaro as Esteban is a definite exception to that. In the lead, he seamlessly weaves through the many incarnations of Esteban, from his idealistic youth to the oblivious cruelty of his middle-age. Even the subtleties in his unspoken expressions show a mastery of intimate acting uncommon in college theatre. While some of his colleagues couldn’t break through the skin of their characters, Massaro crawled inside and reincarnated himself. He is tender enough in the first 10 minutes to keep the audience invested throughout his later episodes of madness.
The production is ambitious and deserves commendation for tackling such difficult material. The play itself is so strong that it is recommendable if only to watch its compelling story unfold.
Imagine trying to stage an adaptation of “The Godfather” on a college stage. The difficulty of pulling off “The House of Spirits” is comparable, which makes it easy to forgive any shortcomings of its performers.
Such forgiveness makes the experience wholly rewarding and very immersive. The stage is surrounded on three sides by the audience. There’s not a bad seat in the house and no one is more than seven rows from the action.
The play runs through March 6 at the Drake Performance and Event Center. Tickets are $15 for students and $20 for the general public.