Sometimes a play pulls a Muhammad Ali on an unsuspecting viewer. It knocks you out.
Melinda Lopez’s “Mala,” a simple, fleet-footed solo show about the trials and challenges she faced while caring for her 93-year-old Cuban-American mother, has an unexpected flattening power. It leaves you sitting heavy in your seat not simply because of the emotional weight of its performance. “Mala” also provokes candid introspection about our relationships with our parents and children, and bigger questions of death and faith.
The wallop of Lopez’s 75-minute one-act, which opened over the weekend in the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, comes partly from the intimacy of the very personal story she shares. Her mother is a strong-willed figure who defied odds her whole life. Now she feels trapped like an animal in a cage, and she lashes out.
A sympathetic performer, Lopez conjures all the figures in the play, including her mother, father, daughter and friends, with minimal storytelling tools. The show takes place on a spare set with three draped frames that look like oversized artworks waiting to be revealed. Those frames are used to display surtitles — “denial,” “mouse blood” — that serve as chapter headings.
There are no dramatic tricks or quick changes in the play, which premiered at Boston’s ArtsEmerson last year under director David Dower and dramaturge P. Carl — the same team that remounted it at the Guthrie. “Mala” is almost like a lecture. But honesty is the hallmark of this show, from Kristine Holmes’ stark set design and Scott Pinkney’s winter-blue lighting to Dower’s crisp direction.
This is a story that Lopez lived — and now relives eight times a week. We feel the writer/performer’s grief even as she tries to suppress it. “Mala” is not sappy nor sentimental. It is hard-nosed and laced with wry humor. We admire Lopez for her courage.
The play’s title comes from a curse that her mother leveled at Lopez in her dementia. “Mala!” — Spanish for “bad” or “wicked” — sounds like a kind of damnation in the hacking utterance voiced by Lopez on stage.
Inviting us into her most intimate struggles, she shows how adults can revert to childhood while kids assume an almost parental role. It’s messy, stark, painful stuff that families everywhere face.
“Nobody teaches you the big stuff — to stay married, to raise a grateful child or care for a dying parent,” she says. “I would like to do this with some grace, some confidence.”
She has achieved that in the end.