The new presentation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Monna Vanna” is purportedly the first professional production in America in more than 100 years — surprising given the quality of the play. It is written in a heightened romantic style, with characters talking, quite seriously and at length, of undying love both poetically and philosophically; perhaps this distinctive, old-fashioned style has kept the play out of America’s classical repertoire. The production at the Stella Adler Theater is an opportunity to see a fine and interesting example of rare work, charged with passionate and thoughtful performances.
In late 15th-century Italy, the city of Pisa is under siege. Garrison commander Guido (Stephan Smith Collins) knows the attacking army from Florence is about to take his city, and he cannot stop it. He’s surprised, then, when his father, Marco (Robin Field), brings news that the attacking captain, Prinzivalle (Bryant Romo), is offering a way out of Pisa’s sure defeat. The proposal, which appalls Guido, is that Prinzivalle will supply Pisa with food and supplies enough for the city to possibly win the war, in exchange for one evening alone with Guido’s wife, Giovanna (Christina Valo).
Collins is impressive as the enraged and self-deceiving Guido, using his powerful voice like a startling whip crack of impending violence. His perf, however, could benefit from a few gradations of emotion between calmness and fury.
Romo is convincing as the lovestruck Prinzivalle although his character seems more like a plot point than a person. His existence in the third act, which would seem to cry out for conflict with Guido, is almost entirely as a silent bystander. Valo is excellent as Vanna, a woman making the best of a tricky situation. She’s equally good in scenes of reawakened love and desperate drama, and the play is better whenever she’s onstage. Field is quietly superb as Marco, the sad voice of reason, bringing such a strength of character that retains the audience’s interest even when delivering reams of repetitive philosophical musings.
Director Joel Marquez doesn’t seem to know what to do with the space, resorting to having Guido stalk endlessly back and forth to create a sense of energy, which becomes tiresome to watch. The play would likely benefit from a smaller stage area, which might focus the attention on the character conflict instead of blocking issues. LizBeth Lucca and Sarah Moore’s costumes seem period-appropriate.