The brilliant English designer Anthony Ward has long impressed audiences with his command of color and light and space. But ''Dona Rosita, the Spinster'' the little-known Federico Garcia Lorca play being revived at the Almeida by Ward's frequent collaborator Phyllida Lloyd, reveals his hitherto unacknowledged gift for plants. To be sure, the play --- an intriguing amalgam of poetry, fantasy and pathos --- accumulates a power all its own as it follows an increasingly bleak path that results in the disappearance of anything verdant and lush. And yet, it is Ward's slowly revealed greenhouse set that initially takes one's breath away in a production likely to appeal even more to gardeners than it will to collectors of theatrical esoterica. The play dates from 1935, the year before Lorca's death and two-thirds of the way through the so-called ''trilogy of the Spanish earth'' (''Blood Wedding,'' ''Yerma,'' ''The House of Bernarda Alba'') for which the Granada-born writer remains best appreciated today.
Dona Rosita (Phoebe Nicholls), the lovesick heroine, spends over two decades waiting for her fiance (and cousin) to return from abroad and claim her as his wife. When first glimpsed, she is a red-dressed figure of rapture, a rose ready to bloom. (Peter Oswald’s new version of the text is thick with garden imagery.) By play’s end, she is the woman in white, both the perpetual bride and a ghost before her time, hurling herself against the back wall of a now-bare house that has been put up for auction.
While the family housekeeper (Celia Imrie) speaks of ”a wake without a corpse,” Dona Rosita’s aunt (Eleanor Bron) cuts to the quick: ”Everything turns its back on old age.” In waiting her entire life for a homecoming that never occurred (her mistake was to allow her fiance a marriage by proxy), Dona Rosita has doomed herself to spinsterhood.
The arc of the story is simple; its telling is not. Though the dominant mood of the last act is one of Chekhovian loss, much of ”Dona Rosita” emerges as an eccentric mixture of dance, movement and poetic address, with theatrical ritual never far away.
The attempted comedy doesn’t always pay off: ”Don’t make me say it,” says the housekeeper three times, to which the aunt replies, ”So don’t say it.” And Imrie mistakenly pitches the earthy, emotional housekeeper at a level of near-burlesque.
Several interludes work very well, especially when Kathryn Hunter comes on as a self-dramatizing local (and lover of canapes) who claims to have sacrificed her life so she could keep her three spinster daughters in feathered hats.
Kerry Shale relishes his one scene as an economics professor in pursuit of Dona Rosita, and, double-cast as an uncle with a green thumb and an infirm teacher of unruly children, Clive Swift gets the best of several rhetorical set pieces.
The heart of the play, Dona Rosita, finds the production at its most wanting. While Bron’s dark-eyed severity and grace as the aunt serve Lorca beautifully, Nicholls suggests a rather shrill, asexual Ophelia.
The play doesn’t help by giving Justin Salinger’s fiance so little time to make an impression that we must take on faith Dona Rosita’s heartbreak, a weakness exacerbated by the passionless playing of the pair.
Amid a stage design (ravishingly lit by Paul Pyant) whose potential for flowering seems endless, it’s a shame that, as the woman whose life is cut tragically back, Nicholls never blooms.