Addison — Maríanela, a world premiere play based on the 1878 novel by the well-known Spanish Realist author Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) is the story of an ugly, poor 16-year-old girl in rural Spain who falls in love with the wealthy, yet blind Pablo. This is a Realist novel, following the principles of the late 19th century French Naturalist movement. Galdós, like his contemporary the French novelist Émile Zola (Nana, 1880, and Germinal, 1885), was deeply influenced by the determinist philosophy of Hippolyte Taine. The novels he wrote during this period shy away from Romanticism’s lofty and idealist notions of life and love. Rather, his Realist characters are subject to the inescapable forces of heredity and social conditions, such as race, social context and the historical moment.
Adapted for MBS Productions by the company’s founder Mark-Brian Sonna (it is not clear if he was working from the original Spanish or an English translation of the novel), Maríanela works well as a theater piece in the intimate atmosphere of Addison’s Stone Cottage Theater in this staging directed by Charles Ballinger.
Key elements of the novel remain intact; the name of the town, Socrates, evokes the Classical Greek philosopher’s ideas and inductive method of inquiry (as relayed by his student Plato, through whom the Socratic method survives). These philosophical concepts are in turn tied to the teleological notion that god arranges everything for the best. A teleologist believes that an action or process occurs for the sake of an end or a final cause, as in when one looks for happiness as a final cause for its own sake, without ulterior motives or secondary rewards.
So when the protagonist, Marianela or Nela for short, describes herself as a simple-minded girl and sees the wonder of God’s creation in everything that surrounds her, and when she loves Pablo in the most pure-hearted of ways, her attitude is founded in ancient Classical philosophy. She calls it unconditional love. By contrast both Pablo and his betrothed Florentine fail this test, as their love for each other is contingent upon secondary factors: Pablo’s affection for Nela depends upon his blindness; his love for Florentine is based upon her physical beauty; Florentine’s love for Pablo is contingent upon his being able to see.
The play has been reset from rural Spain to rural Texas and Louisiana in the 1920s. The cast of characters is pared down from the novel in order to tighten the dramatic action. Marianela, played brilliantly by Charli Armstrong, carries this piece on her bare feet and rich voice. Well incorporated into the play while moving the action forward, seven songs from this time period include: Lord, Remember Me, No Man can Hinder Me, House of the Rising Sun, Good-bye Brother, My Father, How Long?, Amazing Grace, and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. But wait, aren’t these considered Negro spirituals? What are they doing in an adaptation of a Spanish play? Let’s get into the role of Pablo for a moment and play blind.
Mark-Brian Sonna plays the eye surgeon Theodore, who is summoned by Florentine’s father to perform surgery so that Pablo and his daughter may marry (the father does not want a “handicapped” son-in-law). Pablo, played by Brian Cook, lacked emotional depth in juxtaposition with Armstrong’s rich Marianela. Celipin the gardener, played by A. Solomon Abah Jr., offered a sound contrast as a contender for Nela’s emotions. Pablo’s father Francis, played by J. King, was a believable figure of authority, even when his part came across rather as a symbol of race and class than a fully developed character. Keila Lorenc played the flighty Southern belle fiancée, Florentine, with the expected gestural accompaniment.
Sonna’s program states that he “only had one actor in mind to play Marianela: Charli Armstrong.” He certainly hit the mark here, casting a performer who is not only a talented singer, but an excellent actor. Armstrong gave depth, subtlety and nuance to her Marianela, making our role as empathetic audience quite easy. The intimate setting draws us close to Marianela and her sorrowful plight, and we can’t help but be deeply moved.
What is her sorrowful plight, exactly? Ah, that’s the twist. For in this adaptation not only is Marianela a poor girl in love with a blind man above her social class, she is a black girl servant in love with a white man land-owner in the segregated South. Hired as his companion, over the years they develop a deep bond of affection and love for each other. Pablo sees the world through Nela’s magical eyes; she sees beauty in everything. Pablo offers what little affection Nela has ever had in her life: she asserts that he sees her as she sees her inner self. In spite of her beautiful spirit, her race and social class pose tremendous obstacles. Yet one feels sorry for Pablo and others like him, who, even with 20/20 vision can only see “skin deep” in their recognition of beauty.
If love were blind, we would all be better off. Yes, I prefer the Romantics…. But bring a hanky and your love of great a cappella singing. Maríanela offers a wonderful evening of entertainment.
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino/a Theater in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Texas.