By Michele Markarian
‘Mala’ Written and performed by Melinda Lopez. Directed by David Dower. Presented by ArtsEmerson, Emerson/Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, for the Arts, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA through November 20.
Melinda Lopez is one of the more honest and engaging actors of our community. She first caught my eye years ago when she performed at the BCA in Coyote Theater Company’s “Blue Window”. An actress myself at the time, I shook my head in wonder and knew that whatever I thought I was doing right, this woman was doing it a million times better. She brings the same honesty and engagement to “Mala”, an intensely personal piece about the guilt and courage it takes to be a witness and ultimately, unwilling helper in the earthly demise of one’s parents.
Mala is a Spanish word for someone rotten to the core. Lopez’s mom uses it on her daughters when they try and get her to do things she doesn’t want to do, like go to the hospital after a fall. Lopez has put herself in the brave and vulnerable position of housing her parents; they live in an apartment on her property. An older sister, who is a scientist preoccupied with her job and often cast as Bad Cop, comes in periodically to find herself the special target of her mother’s venom. Other supporting roles – all played by Lopez – are her own daughter, her Jewish mother-in-law, and Gina, a neighbor who is also dealing with aging parents.
Two parents are easier to deal with than one, even as they’re yelling at each other and throwing dishes around. (“We’re Cuban” shrugs Lopez). Once her father dies – in one of the more moving moments of “Mala” – Lopez is forced to hire a companion for her mother. “She’s started dying, but haven’t we all?” asks the playwright/performer, and indeed, one’s own issues of mortality are always just beneath the surface when our parents, our protective layer between life and death, depart.
Lopez does a terrific job expressing the emotions and tasks associated with having an aging parent – the guilt for living, the desire to keep them happy against one’s better judgment, the denial over the extremity of their health. Lopez describes an incident where her mother falls and hits her head as something routine – the women in her family have low blood pressure, and tend to fall without consequences. Minutes later her mother is laughing, talking, so Lopez decides not to send her to the hospital for a checkup. Two days later, when she can’t get out of bed, it’s discovered that she has bleeding on the brain due to the accident.
Things like this are commonplace when dealing with the elderly; if you’ve got aging parents at home or have just buried them, this is not a fun or even cathartic show to see. “I’m depressed”, said my husband when we left, who buried, after extensive caregiving, his own parents over the past two years. “I hear you”, I said – my dad’s been gone four years and I had to put my mother in a nursing home. As a matter of fact, everyone I know seems to dealing with mortality, guilt and parents. “But she is so good”, said my husband, brightening, referring to Lopez, and yeah, she is so good. She is the reason to see this play. For more info, go to: https://artsemerson.org/Online/