Transmuting loss into literature — Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,’’ Donald Hall’s “Without,’’ Joyce Carol Oates’s “A Widow’s Story: A Memoir’’ — requires authors to bare their souls about the worst moments in their lives.
Transmuting loss into theater presents an even steeper challenge, since it requires that the soul-baring take place onstage before a live audience.
Boston playwright-actress Melinda Lopez surmounts that challenge beautifully in “Mala,’’ her piercingly honest, exquisitely moving new solo play, inspired by the last year of her mother’s life, now at ArtsEmerson under the direction of David Dower.
Written and performed by Lopez, “Mala’’ combines the intimacy of a deeply personal story with the “Yep, been there’’ universality of experiences and emotions that most of us have had, one way or another.
Lopez has said that the protagonist of this autobiographical play, named Mala, is a “compilation character’’ who is based on herself. Woven throughout the 80-minute “Mala’’ are the voices of friends who also lost parents, along with extended passages about the death of Mala’s father not long before her mother died. As the character confronts the newfound frailty of two people who had exuded so much vitality, who had been bold enough to leave Cuba and forge new lives in the United States, Lopez lets us see who they once were.
And as the play chronicles her struggles to cope with, and make sense of, their decline, the playwright avoids any suggestion of pat answers to hard questions. “I won’t tell you there is a lesson in every experience,’’ says Lopez-as-Mala. “There isn’t.’’ Indeed, Didion’s terse summation from “The Year of Magical Thinking’’ came to mind as I watched “Mala’’: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.’’
On her own journey to and through that place, Lopez proves to be an exceptionally engaging tour guide. Though the overall tone of “Mala’’ is elegiac — Mala’s account of the last time she saw her father is a throat-catching, quietly devastating excursion into magical thinking — Lopez is also willing and able to be funny. “Mala’’ is shot through with a wry recognition of life’s big ironies and imponderables.
Moving back and forth across Kristine Holmes’s simple, powder-blue set, Lopez builds a strong rapport with the audience from the start, when, in an inversion of the usual pre-show admonition, she urges spectators to not turn off their cellphones because they would otherwise spend the evening fretting about the young or elderly loved ones at home for whom they have responsibility.
However, “Mala’’ could do without subsequent asides to the audience in which she offers meta-commentary on the process of constructing a drama (“So this is the part of the play that gives context and back story’’). It’s as if Lopez was worried that talking about her personal losses could come across as self-indulgent. She shouldn’t; it doesn’t.
Indeed, odds are many in the audience hear resonant echoes in her experiences of their own. There are hints of tension with her sister that will be familiar to anyone who has entered into a long-term caregiving arrangement with siblings. While Mala’s love for her parents is always evident, the narrator is bluntly honest about the exhaustion and frustration of caring for her mother, who lived with her. One of the play’s opening lines, drawn from a remark Mala says she wrote on her iPhone note-taking app after an especially difficult day, is: “She won’t rest until I am dead.’’
The mother sometimes lashed out at her near the end, going so far as to call her “Mala,’’ which, she says, “means your essential self is bad — not that you have done something bad, but that you are — in your core — bad.’’ The narrator is candid about the fact that her mother was a severe disciplinarian when she was growing up, and frankly acknowledges an episode — shocking to her and to us — when Mala’s own anger got the better of her.
As Mala copes with the logistical challenges and emotional pain stemming from the end of her parents’ lives — the falls, the surgeries, the stays in the hospital or a nursing home — her other obligations don’t go away: as an employee, as a wife, as a mother. That, ultimately, is what makes “Mala’’ such a richly layered work, for all its brevity. Lopez understands that none of us is ever just one thing — and that life is one long and very precarious balancing act.
Written and performed by Melinda Lopez
Directed by David Dower
Presented by ArtsEmerson at Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, Boston. Through Nov. 20. Tickets $60, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org