Melinda Lopez in "Mala." Photo by Rich Soublet II
To call a woman “mala” in Spanish is to call her a bad person. In the case of a daughter trying to take care of her elderly and infirm mother, this also translates to “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Melinda Lopez inhabits this role in her one-woman play “Mala,” onstage through June 12 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the round. For nearly 80 minutes, she recounts the odyssey and ordeal of caregiving: the dreading of late-night phone calls; the agonizing over whether to try to force a loved one into a hospital for treatment; the wondering how long it can all go on; and the feelings of guilt when entertaining the thought that there will be an end.
Americans of any means at all are inclined to thrust their elderly parents into “facilities” or “homes,” abdicating the care to strangers. But Lopez and her family are of traditional Cuban lineage, and that’s something you just don’t do. Out of love and out of duty, you do what you must do, even as it’s tearing you apart.
“Mala” finds Lopez portraying not only herself and her mother, but others in the caregiving sphere, from friends and neighbors offering unsolicited advice to an impossibly cheery hospice worker. Nobody has an answer because there isn’t any.
Lopez’s relaxed presence onstage and occasional humor lighten what might otherwise be a stiflingly heavy subject, one that all too many people in the audience either know all too well or fear will someday come to pass. She makes it clear that difficult as her plight is, it’s manageable because she’s acting out of love.
Toward the tail end of the play, directed by David Dower, Lopez admits to hating poets, so it’s interesting that the script turns rather poetic afterward. Anytime you drag T.S. Eliot into the theater – and this has nothing to do with “Cats” – you’re flirting with pretentiousness.
Fortunately, Lopez brings her show to its conclusion without posturing and without melodrama. She is alone on the stage as she has been the entire time, but her story has found its way into the consciences and maybe the hearts as well of anyone who’s experienced the telling of it.
"Mala" runs through June 12 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.