There are as many ways of looking at death as there are ways to die, and eventually we all have to pick the way that suits us best.
Spanish playwright Alejandro Casona tinkers with this idea in The Lady of the Dawn, a spooky drama that fits the crepe and crossbones aura of Halloween like a snug coffin. Teatro Dallas has substituted this work for the Don Juan play it usually produces to mark the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos--the Day of the Dead.
A rite celebrated throughout much of the Hispanic world that coincides with the Anglo-Teutonic All Hallows Eve, the Day of the Dead is an annual invitation to embrace death and come to terms with it. Part of the rite includes erecting an altar, or ofrenda, at the deceased's grave. An ofrenda is a colorful collage of personal mementos belonging to or associated with the dead person during his or her life, usually accompanied by a glass of water to refresh the departed spirit on its long journey.
Several ofrendas are on display in the lobby of the theater. One of them, an altar to Grateful Dead axe man Jerry Garcia, is draped with tie-dyed shirts, a simulated cannabis cigarette, photos of the dead man, and various other Garciaesque mementos (no Cherry Garcia ice cream, however). Another ofrenda memorializes Cesar Chavez and includes as a centerpiece a bunch of grapes.
One point in constructing an ofrenda is to get right next to death at the grave level, in order to transcend fear and gain an understanding and acceptance of the fate awaiting us.
That's also the point of the play, effectively put across by this taut and entertaining production. The story concerns a woman in rural Spain whose daughter, Angelica, was reportedly drowned, though her body was never recovered. The woman has made her life a metaphoric ofrenda to her dead child, but instead of releasing her pain, she has deliberately nursed it into an obsession. Her morbid brooding has infected the entire household, muting the lives of her other three children, alienating her widower son-in-law, Martin, and troubling the old age of her father. The mother is particularly vexed by the inconclusive manner of her daughter's death. Until a body is found and returned to the dust from which it came, there is no rest for her.
Into this troubled mnage comes a stranger, a pilgrim seeking shelter on a dark and stormy night. She is a lady of considerable elegance and refinement, decked out like an aristocrat and looking very much like she just wandered away from the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady.
The father, a cagey old peasant, seems to recognize her. Didn't she pass this way the year that poor shepherd froze to death in the hills? And wasn't she seen that horrible, hellish night an explosion collapsed the local mine, killing the seven sons of Telva? He quickly deduces that the charming, seductive, but rather fey and menacing stranger is Death itself, come to keep an appointment with Martin that night.
However, in mingling with the three younger children, Death gets a taste of life and laughter, and it saps her of her usual indefatigable energy and grim punctuality. She naps, and misses her assignation with Martin. At that moment, he enters with a young woman in his arms, whom he has rescued from drowning in the river. Death sizes her up and promises to return in seven months, suggesting that her fate has only been postponed by Martin.
During the intervening seven months, the mother's spirits are renewed, as the rescued woman, Adela, fills the emotional void created by Angelica's death. The younger children seem in Adela to have their sister back, and Martin, it appears, may have a new wife.
Death returns, however, and in the most gripping and well-realized scene in the play, gives birth to her more spectral and ghastly incarnation. In a sinuous, sexy dance, this skeletal figure emerges from Death's womb and slithers and undulates across the darkened stage, putting forth its ineluctable power. It doesn't take long for a corpse to turn up, though whose corpse is a bit of a surprise.
The principal conflict here is between death and the old peasant, who at first finds her an inscrutable and loathsome enemy. Death counters that she is sadly misunderstood. "Make an effort to understand me before you condemn me," she says. "When you let me come in my own time, how tenderly I untie the knots."
When the kiss of death is finally administered, it is clear that death is not always the last, worst option that life has to offer.
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The play benefits from a spare, linear plot, some poetic imagery, and a more thoughtful treatment of death than you would get from a mere spookfest. It also has good performances going for it, particularly Linda Coleman's portrayal of the ambiguous angel of mercy. Coleman exudes the hypnotic fascination of a snake, and is alternatively seductive or just plain weird, as when she thrashes on the floor like a holy roller after discovering the exhilaration of laughter.
Dinah Mann also is effective as the bereaved mother. Sallow, stooped, and belligerent in the first act, she undergoes a neat transformation to become pert, pretty, and gracious by the play's end. It's also a welcome aberration to see three child actors as natural and winning as the trio of Carlos Gonzales, Elena Harvey Hurst, and Evan Figg. Young Figg, who has twice appeared as Tiny Tim in Dallas Theater Center productions of A Christmas Carol, is one of the very few kid actors you'd rather pick up and hug than prod with the toe of your boot.
Original music by Frank Mendez and a variety of additional sounds, including some rather bloodcurdling Spanish bagpipes, greatly enhance the mysterioso mood of the piece. Director Cora Cardona does a good job balancing the philosophical points of the play with the creepy parts, to create an entertaining whole that tingles both the spine and the brain cells.
The Lady of the Dawn runs through November 4 at Teatro Dallas. Call 741-1135.