What does it take for a relatively new actor to outshine a cast of veterans? A red dress and plenty of spunk.

The highlight of Wild Rice’s latest play, The House Of Bernarda Alba, is watching 25-year-old Glory Ngim prance, scream and cry as Adela — the youngest of the 5-sister Alba family. The Spanish play was originally written by Federico Garcia Lorca and adapted by Singaporean playwright Chay Yew into a Peranakan context that does not feel out of place.

Theatre company W!LD RICE took a gamble to stage a play like THOBA, considering its previous offerings which were not as heavy in intensity. In typical W!LD fashion, the treatment is lavish and classy: from an astounding set design in classy black with a flight of stairs that ascends to the Alba’s gigantic front door to ingenious effects such as spotlights gilded with motifs and rain pouring downstage, no expense was left behind in establishing the scenario. Kudos to Glen Goei and Ivan Heng for pushing the frontier once again.

THOBA tells the story of matriarch Bernarda Alba (Claire Wong) who imposes an eight-year mourning period over the death of her second husband. Already trapped in a stifling household controlled by the matriarch, the news does not go down well with Alba’s five daughters. However, the eldest daughter Angustias (Neo Swee Lin) finds hope in escaping the household due to her wealthy inheritance — she was the only daughter of Alba’s first husband; the second husband only left small amounts of inheritance to the other four daughters.

The inheritance attracts Pepe el Romano — we never see him in the play — who wants to marry Angustius. Things take a melodramatic turn when youngest sister Adela begins a secret affair with Pepe, which enrages another sister Martirio (Noorlinah Mohamed) who also reveals her affection for Pepe. Secrets are soon uncovered and existing tensions in the household boil over into surprising fatalities.

THOBA’s star-studded cast and 24-woman ensemble definitely delivered, each offering a passionate take on their character. Noorlinah articulates Martirio’s sexual repression in the most uncomfortable manner ever — you will squirm but with much delight. Neo Swee Lin somehow manages to pull off a 39-year-old innocent Angustias although she does look as old as Claire’s character. Karen Tan and Serene Chen pull off nuanced turns as Magdalena and Amelia respectively but it is a pity that both characters took a back seat. Although Serene crystallises the fight for gender equality in an arresting monologue, we would definitely have loved to see more of Karen and Serene in the play.

And yes, Glory Ngim. As the feisty Adela, her fire for freedom and equality is equal parts convincing and charming. She flits around in a red dress despite orders to wear black during mourning and looks up at the stars with eyes that cry for the expansive future. Glory has had quite the career, debuting in Dream Academy’s Company to much critical acclaim, but if there was a performance so far that could secure her first individual Life! Theatre Awards nomination, it would be this one.

Another standout goes to Jo Kukuthas, who clearly is on a level of her own with her sterling turn as Poncia, Bernarda’s housekeeper. Jo keeps it real with her honest, incisive acting as she plays a character who hears too much, speaks too fast and yet can’t find anywhere else to go to. Between trying to convince Bernarda to remove her family bias and sorting out the messy love affair beneath the cracks, Poncia is a layered character and Jo humanised her with much-needed heart and prespective. Jo is the perfect actress for Poncia.

However, the talk of the town seems to be the mismatched casting of the matriarch and her mother, played by the incomparable Margaret Chan. It would definitely have been more powerful if Margaret took on the matriarch’s role with her signature brand of feisty energy and Claire’s more steely demeanour complemented that of the grandmother.

But, that casting would also have been typical.

In an adaptation that strived to push the boundaries of the theatre company’s usual repertoire, I am glad W!LD RICE took the liberty to have a quieter Bernarda — one that spoke with her eyes, not by her stature. Claire could have experimented more with Bernarda’s physicality and pushed the character to reach higher peaks in the crescendo of emotions, but in moments of stillness, Claire commands the room with her presence. That is the hallmark of a true matriarch.

At two hours without intermission, one definitely feels the time duration considering the amount of emotional investment made in every scene. While scene changes were smooth and largely unnoticed, I kept checking my watch during a draggy scene (or five) which is not quite the intended effect of omitting the break.

But if you are in the mood to watch some serious tragedy or appreciate a more extravagant take on the works of Lorca, The House Of Bernarda Alba is one to watch. Everything in the last 15 minutes is theatre gold.

Photos: Albert KS Lim, courtesy of W!LD RICE

The House Of Bernarda Alba runs till March 29 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets are at $45-$75 from SISTIC.