Her wide-ranging intelligence is apparent from the start of Karen Zacarias' bioplay, The Sins of Sor Juana, which is the centerpiece of the Goodman Theatre's fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival. While there's little subtlety in the work or production -- as evidenced from the start by Todd Rosenthal's evocative set design -- it turns out that watching an old-fashioned potboiler isn't such a bad thing.
The play begins with the moment in 1693 when Sor Juana (played with suitable intensity by the beautiful Malaya Rivera Drew) clashed severely with Church authorities over the limits of scholarly pursuit and publication by a woman. Rather than accepting such limits, Sor Juana chose to stop writing entirely. The play then flashes back to 1665 -- just before 17-year-old Juana entered a convent -- to show us the forces at work in shaping Juana's decision and fate.
As imagined by Zacarias, the young Juana falls in love with Silvio (the smoldering Dion Mucciacito) the fortune-seeking bastard son of a noble father, whose sole intent is to dishonor her. He comes to love her sincerely, but he is embroiled in a plot and counterplot between the Viceroy (Tony Plana) and his wife (Amy J. Carle), both of whom seek to control Juana's destiny for personal reasons.
Zacarias constructs a series of conflicts revolving around social class, birth, wealth, and the sexual double standard and intellectual double standard applied against women in that era. Juana is taught that a woman may succeed -- and find a kind of freedom -- only if she has a powerful male protector. While she nearly marries one such protector, the uncle of the Viceroy's wife, she eventually accepts the male-dominated protection of the Church, as represented by her Father Confessor, Padre Nunez (also well played by Plana).
For the most part, The Sins of Sor Juana is lively if not particularly deep, and the play might have fared better if Zacarias had not cut so many corners in telling her tale. The classical style she emulates needs more characters and careful complexities. The Viceroy's motivations are weak; we never see Sor Juana confront her Church tormentors in a battle of wits; we never meet the older man she is to marry; and we never see Silvio truly in love with her!
Nevertheless, director Henry Godinez has mounted a handsome show with a few striking touches, such as an improbable first scene in which Silvio strips in front of virginal Juana and then dons her corset and dress. He also gets an excellent performance from Joe Minoso, who makes the absolute most of his darkly comic character, Don Pedro, cleverly using physical business to underline the man's threatening, lascivious yet cowardly personality, and a scene-stealing one from Laura Crotte as Juana's spiritual figure, Xochitl, a kind-of maid/duenna who, ultimately, doesn't have any real effect on the story.