The play has a little bit of everything, including moments that are hauntingly beautiful (songs, dance, voodoo spells and mesmerizing chants). It has some disappointingly superficial characters (three teenage sisters), one that’s borderline superfluous (male) and two — a house slave and a matriarch — that are wonderfully complex. And its comically stylized stage movement by director Patricia McGregor that, at times, distances the audience from the characters.
The story, set in 1836 New Orleans in a family of free women of color (and with uncanny similarities to Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” right down to the surname Albans), is fascinating.
Wealthy, tough Beartrice’s white lover of 30 years, Lazare, has just died — poisoned, some suspect, by Beartrice (an intense, uncompromising portrayal by Lizan Mitchell). She and her three biracial daughters face changing life circumstances.
Beartrice knows that it’s a transitional time in American history. Since the Louisiana Purchase, people like her and her family will be losing the privileges they once enjoyed under French rule, including the right to acquire wealth.
Beartrice’s wealth is due to the custom of plaçage, which allowed for contractual common-law marriages, of sorts, between white men and black women, white wives notwithstanding.
But now, new laws decree that the white wife is entitled to the deceased’s property, no matter what his will says.
Beartrice, a preternaturally resourceful woman, must find a way to retain her house.
Every one of Gardley’s characters wants freedom — and Beartrice wants a new kind of freedom for her daughters — but their varying definitions of the concept inevitably creates conflict.
No one wants freedom more than the slave Makeda (a skilled and deeply felt performance by Harriet D. Foy, who also added original compositions to Keith Townsend Obadike’s sound design and original score). Makeda is just as resourceful in her own way, as a forbidding mistress.
Gardley’s language, mixed with dabs of Creole French, is sublimely lyrical, nicely balanced with an easy vernacular. And even though some of the characters could use further development, his play is an impressive achievement.
While director McGregor hasn’t found a way to smoothly integrate the humor with the drama, she has crafted some gorgeous moments.
The House that will not Stand
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a coproduction with Yale Repertory Theatre
Where: Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes March 16
Tickets: $29 to $59
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org