Sarah Gadon on grappling with femininity, fertility for 'monster' role in 'Yerma'

TORONTO — Sarah Gadon is one of Canada’s most prolific film and TV stars but even she found herself slowing down when pandemic-induced restrictions curbed the screen industry.

The “Alias Grace” and “Cosmopolis” actress says she was able to shoot four Canadian films despite COVID-19 precautions but that a general slowdown opened the door to her first stage role and a long-sought collaboration with Diana Bentley, co-artistic director of the Coal Mine Theatre.

They set their sights on a modern adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s “Yerma,” currently in previews and officially set to open Thursday.

Seething with psychological and social ruminations on femininity and motherhood, the play is no breezy foray into live performance, says Gadon, who takes on the central role of a woman who longs to have a child.

She says she identified with the increasingly frantic character, known only as “Her,” since she, too, has been on her “own kind of fertility journey” as a woman in her mid-30s.

“It's a monster role. But then also the play itself and what the play does to you, as an audience member – the questions that it asks of you, the themes that it explores (of) dysfunction and family and motherhood and all of those things – just felt very relevant to me,” Gadon says in a recent call from the Coal Mine Theatre.

“Just like, grappling with wanting to have a child but not necessarily being with the right partner, wanting to still continue to work but not knowing how I would be able to work and have a child, and (contemplating) freezing my eggs and thinking about this ticking clock and the oppressiveness of that as a working woman in her 30s. And all of those things and all of that pressure.”

"Yerma" is Gadon's stage debut and is based on a celebrated reimagining by Australian director Simon Stone, who allowed Coal Mine and Bentley, who is the director, to shift the story to 2016 Toronto, from 2016 London. Stone's version is a radical update to Lorca's mythic tragedy set in 1930s rural Spain that premiered to rave reviews at The Young Vic and featured a tour-de-force turn by Billie Piper.

Gadon saw the play when it travelled to New York and says she was taken by its unflinching examination of themes including gender, aging and social conventions.

The Toronto show is performed in-the-round, with an audience on all sides of a sunken white pit, she says, noting budget constraints don’t allow for the slick glass enclosure and changing floors that were part of Stone's set.

“What I like about the production design is that the audience is kind of looking down on the stage,” she says.

“But I think it's very, very intimate. And I think it's in keeping with a lot of the previous Coal Mine productions — the intimacy is really there.”

The play is the inaugural production of a new space for the east-end theatre after its previous venue was destroyed by fire in September.

Co-stars include veteran stage actor Martha Burns, Daren A. Herbert, Louise Lambert, Michelle Mohammed and Johnathan Sousa.

Gadon says switching from screen to stage has been "technically" different, requiring her to work with a vocal coach nearly every day. The form also departs from the “very mechanical” and disjointed approach of most film productions, which “can be very stop-and-start.”

“I'm actually really looking forward to being able to go on a full journey catharsis, without stopping,” she says.

“Usually you're trying to chart this catharsis over weeks or months and it's out of order. And you have to do so much work to be able to drop into specific states of being."

The 105-minute play contains trigger warnings for content that touches on abortion, miscarriage, fertility, in vitro fertilization and suicide.

Diving into such emotional terrain is draining, Gadon says. Part of her preparation for the role has been to figure how to leave her anguished character on the stage at the end of the day.

“Whenever you work in a trauma space, your body doesn't really know the difference. Like, your body is going through it,” she says.

“I know that in order to be a responsible actor – but also a responsible person in my life when I go home to my husband – I have to come off the work so that I'm not like taking it with me when I go home.”

"Yerma" runs until March 5.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press