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Sarah Gadon and company in Yerma.Tim Leyes/Tim Leyes

  • Title: Yerma
  • Written by: Simon Stone (adapted from Federico Garcia Lorca)
  • Director: Diana Bentley
  • Actors: Sarah Gadon, Martha Burns, Daren A. Herbert, Louise Lambert
  • Company: Coal Mine Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To February 26, 2023

Critic’s pick

The return of Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre five months after a devastating fire at their original location on Danforth Avenue is nothing short of a miracle. Its reopening in a new locale (on Danforth, further east) with a play focusing on birth seems like more than mere coincidence.

Yerma, written by Australian theatre artist Simon Stone and based on Federico García Lorca’s 1934 play, focuses on the fixation of one woman (Sarah Gadon, playing an unnamed character) on conceiving with her partner, John (Daren A. Herbert). Originally presented at London’s Young Vic Theatre in 2016, the production opened at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2020. The Coal Mine is considerably smaller than either of those venues, but what the Toronto production loses in real estate it gains in a visceral immediacy complementing Stone’s rhythmic, emotional script.

Although budgetary restrictions for the Canadian production didn’t allow for the glass enclosure of the performance area seen in London and New York, the sunken, rectangular set design (by set and lighting designer Kaitlin Hickey), with the audience seated in the round, highlights the claustrophobic nature of the material.

Sarah Gadon, best known for film and television roles (including David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars), skilfully uses the intimacy of the space to telegraph the inner life of a woman caught in her own little box of emptiness. Mining both traditional and modern frameworks for notions of cis femininity, Gadon’s depiction relies on the energy of contrasts; her character can (and does) turn on a dime from loving to angry, a move very much related to power and how she (thinks she) wields it.

We see a gamine-like figure at the start, when she and John first move into their new house and the possibility of a baby is broached; that figure becomes hostile as she and John begin to fight, her needling him with questions about his frequent work trips, him throwing up his hands in frustration.

She is an authoritative boss to Des (Michelle Mohammed), who peppers her with data about how confessional writing drives engagement on the work-life blog that largely makes up her professional life; with her mother Helen (Martha Burns) and sister Mary (Louise Lambert) she alternates between combative, caring and, ultimately, cruel. The scenes with the three women bubble with resentment and largely unspoken anger, the chemistry they share made more powerful through the Coal Mine’s cozy environs.

Director Diana Bentley (who is also a co-founder of Coal Mine) negotiates this space with a deft hand. In one vignette Helen compares giving birth to a famous stomach-bursting scene in film Alien; Helen perches in one spot, before carefully moving to another, while her daughter, who is recording the conversation on a mobile phone placed between them, circles like a hawk, demonstrating the ways in which work and life blur and intermingle.

When Mary comes to visit and confesses to thoughts of both infanticide and suicide, a blanketed baby carrier is placed like an offering in the middle of an empty space, a holy vessel in a spot where not even a tree could grow. The introduction of ex-boyfriend Victor (Johnathan Sousa) lacked a certain nervous energy that might have better conveyed the hope latent within it (perhaps Victor can give her the child John cannot). But Victor’s earnestness is endearing, especially against Gadon’s nameless character’s pushy desperation. Subsequent scenes with both Victor and John are marked by anger, guilt and disappointment, with John’s final monologue a heartbreaking catharsis of regret.

A rainy outdoor dance festival near the play’s end provides a closure of sorts for the nameless main character, clothed in white, hands outstretched, looking like a fallen angel seeking redemption from the black-hooded figures she mistakes for friends, family and old flames. Yerma asks questions about traditional (and modern) female roles, but Stone’s update is also a hymn to hope and power, and requiem for their absence.

Since Yerma, Stone has moved on to directing opera, and no wonder; with snappy dialogue that constantly reveals and conceals, shifts in audience sympathies, and skips in and out of naturalism, Stone’s talents are well-suited to the operatic. The Toronto-specific references (Rob Ford, bike lanes) inserted within the current production’s script offer familiar melodies to a darker harmony, one that deserves to be pondered over and beyond its 100-minute, intermission-free running time. An important reminder of the power of live theatre, Yerma is also, in Coal Mine’s case, a powerful, memorable (re)birth.