Caridad Svich's theatrical translation of Isabel Allende's bestselling The House of the Spirits arrives on the stage as a mere shadow of its former self. Which isn't to say that the production, now at ASU's Galvin Playhouse, is anything other than praiseworthy. It's just that there's so very little left of the novel it's based upon — a fact that is made exhaustively clear in overlong, apologetic notes from the playwright, the director, and even the dramaturg, who refers to this translation as "a trialogue between" Svich's play, Allende's novel, and director Rachel Bowditch's fine staging and as a "theatrical communal experience."
They needn't have bothered with the apologies. The scraps of Allende's story that have made it to the stage are so beautifully realized by Bowditch, her stunning cast, and her crack technical team that even diehard fans of the more complicated tale told in the book will be thrilled and moved.
Allende's beloved debut novel, published in 1982, fictionalizes her native Chile and follows four generations of a Latin American family whose lives are consumed by political power and touched by witchcraft. The book is gory with violence and crammed with political coups, imprisonment, and torture, but the play uses that violence as a more occasional counterpoint to high emotion and some truly gorgeous dialogue.
On a single glorious set that fluidly shifts locations and time, a triumvirate of stunning leads read that dialogue with brilliant clarity. As Clara, Julie Rada ages from a girl to a granny with a simple grace uncommon in a young actor. Marcelino Quiñonez wisely resists hamming up Esteban Trueba's more emotional scenes or playing his villainy too darkly, and the result is a performance that allows us to care about this frankly unpleasant man. And Sabrina S. Scott gives a wonderfully unsettling performance as Ferula, Esteban's feral sister. Her modulated performance — particularly in scenes where she's seen seducing her sister-in-law — brings new dramatic weight to the play.
Even without these fine performances, I suspect the audience would have stayed to cheer the beautiful staging that envelops the production. Brunella Provvidente's multi-leveled set allows characters to speak to one another across time and is draped in evocative slide shows and lighting tricks that make an already splendid production even more superb.