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    Huntington’s ‘Yerma’ speaks the language of one woman’s obsession

    Actress Nadine Malouf (foreground) at the rehearsal of “Yerma.”
    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
    Actress Nadine Malouf (foreground) at the rehearsal of “Yerma.”

    “Yerma,” says playwright Melinda Lopez, is an epic tale of a singular woman.

    In Federico García Lorca’s play, we watch the title character move through her life in the country, longing to become a mother, only to see that dream slip away from her. When her frustration and disappointment cause her to lose hope, the consequences are devastating.

    “Yerma is prickly, passionate, and selfish, and she’s battling time in her quest to have a child,” says Lopez, who has translated and adapted “Yerma” for the Huntington Theatre in a production that runs May 31-June 30. “With the passage of time, our bodies betray us, and make choices our brains can’t explain. Yerma experiences emotions that every woman has experienced, but Lorca amplifies them to heroic and tragic heights.”

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    Considered one of the greatest Spanish poets of the 20th century, Lorca infused his handful of plays with lyricism and symbolism, celebrating the music of the countryside while illuminating the clash between modern life and folklore central to rural traditions. In addition to “Yerma,” English-language audiences are most familiar with his “Blood Wedding,” a tragedy about misplaced love, and “The House of Bernarda Alba,” a story of the impact of repression and conformity on a family of women.

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    “His work is profoundly theatrical,” says Lopez, the Huntington’s playwright in residence whose own works include “Sonia Flew,” “Mala,” and “Becoming Cuba.” “My challenge was to find the heightened language that would make Yerma’s gripping tale of obsession resonate today while remaining true to Lorca’s spirit.”

    Originally staged in 1934, two years before Lorca was executed by Spain’s right-wing military, “Yerma” follows a woman who is battling time in her quest to have a child. The story embodies Lorca’s fascination with the Surrealist movement (he was friendly with Salvador Dali) and his interest in epic storytelling, music, and symbolism.

    “Lorca’s symbolic use of water to suggest the passage of time and change has been wonderful to play with in rehearsal,” says director Melia Bensussen, who has been collaborating with Lopez as the script was developed over the past two years.

    “Melinda is such an adventurous playwright,” says Bensussen. “She understands how much range actors can bring to her words and how much music can drive the action.”

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    Composer Mark Bennett has created music for songs that will be performed onstage (by a guitarist and a percussionist) while also serving as a backdrop for the action.

    “Lorca was also a songwriter and stage director,” says Lopez. “I have translated Lorca’s songs and reframed them to work within the context of the story.”

    Central to the story is the community of women that surround Yerma, and the gossip, secrets, and heartbreak they share. Bensussen says the play explores what it means to be a woman; for her it has been a joy to assemble a mostly female cast, with women of different “skin tones, body types and ages, all confronting the notion of mortality and what we leave behind.”

    “Yerma’s desire to have a child is really about her effort to find meaning in her life,” she says. “A child offers a bit of immortality, and Yerma becomes obsessed by that desire.”

    At the center of the company, as Yerma, is Nadine Malouf, an Australian who moved to Grafton as a middle school student. She is now based in New York.

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    “I find I’m drawn to darker stories,” says Malouf. “We try to keep the darker aspects of our personalities under wraps, but they are a part of us. Melinda’s script is so layered, she captures Yerma’s flaws, but there’s also no denying her strength and determination.”

    Malouf says she’s long been a fan of Lorca’s poetry, and turned to his lecture “Play and Theory of the Duende” to understand Yerma.

    “Lorca talked about the primal urges that are a part of creativity, the mystery behind our need for darkness and light,” Malouf says. “The stakes are so high for Yerma, but she will not back down. That’s what makes her terrifying and thrilling to play.”

    YERMA

    Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, May 31-June 30. Tickets $20-$89, 617-933-8600, www.huntingtontheatre.org

    Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.