Review: 'Sins of Sor Juana' reveals remarkable woman

I doubt many of us have heard of Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican poet and nun revered for her outspokenness. But thanks to American Players Theatre and PBS Wisconsin in their second "Out of the Woods" collaboration, I guarantee that is about to change.

De la Cruz was a legendary cultural figure in Mexico, and now is considered to be the first feminist writer in the West. Beginning her career in the court of Mexico City at the age of 16, de la Cruz addressed love, feminism, philosophy and even sex through verse at a time when it was politically incorrect, sinful, and unfashionable for women to express their intellect.

Karen Zacarías's play “The Sins of Sor Juana,” a Goodman Theatre season production in 2010, draws upon what little historical facts are known about de la Cruz. Zacarías writes in the style of magical realism; the play is full of imagery, drama, humor and complexity. It’s also relevant and timely, appropriate for these times.

In the play directed by Jake Penner, de la Cruz is presented as an artist, “a conduit through which truth is given voice.” He and Zacarías address her vision quite well.

Making the virtual play reading easy to follow, stage directions are given with setting explanations; each actor is labeled onscreen, and when they speak, their box is highlighted. Voice coach Joy Lanceta Coronel wisely chose to focus on the text and not the dialects.

The play begins with de la Cruz sending a letter to the new bishop “that God wants women to learn” – not a popular philosophy at the time. She also has managed to have a collection of her poems and sonnets published (she's dubbed the Tenth Muse of Mexico), much to the discomfort and anger of Padre Núñez and Madre Filothea, heads of the convent she has taken residency in after refusing to marry the Vicereine’s dry and cranky Uncle Fabio. The negotiations between those two women involving writing and a library are both humorous and distressing. De la Cruz also orchestrated the death of her love Don Silvio. And now de la Cruz’s actions have brought the padre and the convent before the Inquisition.

This is an ensemble that is talented, expressive both physically as well as vocally. I was engaged, and I have to admit I had a visceral reaction to some of the characters, wanting to smack the smirk off Sor Sara or shake the stupidity out of Mother Filothea.

Melisa Pereyra glows as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I’ve never seen so many expressions projected on a face so convincingly: determination, curiosity, confusion, hope, love, pride, beauty. Pereyra is an articulate, intelligent and vital actress.

Triney Sandoval is double cast as the Viceroy and, more magnificently, as Padre Núñez, Juana’s confessor and protector. Sandoval plays both parts with nobility, majestic essence, and power.

Janyce Caraballo is every bit Maria, the sweet, eager novice, so loyal to Juana. She also gets to provide the “think about it” ending.

Cher Álvarez as Sor Sara is Juana’s nemesis, the smirky gossip who quips, “You’ll see the charity of our actions” none too sweetly. She flips the switch to also reappear as the beautiful Vicereine – just pigeonhole her as the villain you love to hate.

Jeliannys Michelle is double cast as the voice of reason Xóchitl and Mother Filothea. She’s flawless with her distinctive characters.

And despite not appearing long onscreen, we have Sebastian Arboleda as the questioning, loyal servant Pedro, and Ronald Román-Meléndez as the doomed Don Silvio, Juana’s true love and the rogue who ignited her mind. He has the dulcet tones necessary to make his character believable.

This is a talented ensemble.

“The Sins of Sor Juana” is a genuinely interesting play, thought provoking, and compelling. I appreciate this introduction to de la Cruz, without a doubt a fascinating figure. American Players continues to be fascinating with its explorations of new voices through BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) works. I also appreciated Zacarías's incorporation of de la Cruz’s poems throughout the play.

But I have to wonder how many other de la Cruzes have been ignored throughout history, or as reviewer John Olson said, “How many accomplishments of which humanity has been deprived over the [centuries] by its insistence on a second-class stature for women?” We’ll never know.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is a theater veteran, having performed and directed throughout Illinois, Ohio and New York onstage, in web series and radio plays, and also serves on several theater boards. She hopes to return soon to live audiences, teaching, acting and traveling with her husband.

IF YOU VIEW

WHAT: "The Sins of Sor Juana" by American Players Theatre

WHEN: Through Dec. 31

COST: Free

INFO: pbswisconsin.org, americanplayers.org