FAMILY MAKES YOU LAUGH AND CRY IN "MALA"
Even if you're the best caretaker for your mother, you can't stop time
By Lianna Matt
“Mala” is not 80 minutes of monologue. It is commiserating with your best friend over hot chocolate, going through your childhood room and watching a velvet-soft rose wither and die. As the play runs in Minneapolis Sept. 22-Oct. 8, Melinda Lopez, writer and performer of the one-woman show, makes you feel at home in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. Through stories of her daughter, her late father and her ailing mother, Lopez conveys to the audience just how close bewilderment and sadness can be and how powerful the connection of family is, even if there are no lessons to be found in yet another talk to the PCA or another perfectly set up pill box.
In the beginning of the play, Lopez’s empathy-inducing tales earn plenty of laughs. This is the caretaker after she has taken a shower and had a cup of coffee. She may not be completely fine, but she is put together enough where she can laugh at the things that made her want to tear her hair out the night before. You can hear it as her voice backtracks, justifies and reminisces, and you can see it in her smile and her body posture as weary as it is warm and inviting. As her anecdotes continue on, Lopez weaves a world where everyone lives in a glass sphere that is balancing on a thin line straddling her elderly mother’s frailty and fortitude, teetering but never crashing.
The set by Kris Holmes helps create that safe space, with white backdrop panels on a white set that is not cold and sterile but clean, minimal and peaceful, a contrast to the messiness of Lopez's story. Words intrude upon that space, both visceral and practical, like chapter titles to her saga. Red and blue lights flash on the background as she speaks of ambulances, and when Lopez begins to bring up questions of dying and the afterlife, the set reflects those thoughts, too, with shimmers of the aurora borealis.
Eventually, though, as anyone in the audience would guess, Lopez’s frenzied yet stabled world does fall off its precipice. It is here where Lopez’s acting fully spreads its wings, and where we learn whether she is mala—bad to her core, in Spanish—if she does not devote her whole self to helping her mother.