nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
August 19, 2009
Pamela Monk and Dennis J. Loiacono's new play Terranova is about a beautiful young Sicilian immigrant to New York City named Josefina Terranova. In 1906, after suffering years of sexual abuse by the uncle and aunt she was sent to live with, and being shunned and further victimized by her new husband for not being a virgin bride, Josefina stabs her uncle and aunt to death and is arrested.
The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst smells a sensational story, and hires a lawyer for Josefina, a disgraced former judge and fellow Italian immigrant named John Palmieri. Palmieri puts forward a defense of temporary insanity, and it is left for the jury to decide if the victim of so much abuse could be driven in a moment of passion to no longer distinguish right from wrong. In return for providing legal counsel, Hearst gets exclusive access to the most intimate details of Josefina's story, one that becomes a sensation in the media of the time, and through Palmieri he can even exert control over how long the case takes to resolve, milking the drama of the story and the court proceedings.
It is a remarkable story, the stuff of a historical fiction, filled with issues of culture, class, gender, and justice, and involving a larger-than-life figure like Hearst. And it is even more remarkable for being true.
Though a media sensation at the time, the story of Josefina Terranova has only been resurrected in the last few years, in an article about criminal psychology of the time period, and I believe Terranova is the first dramatic telling of the story in any medium.
I was very impressed with this play and production, and intrigued by the real story of these events. Reading some 1906 New York Times articles about the killings online, I was struck by how many of the large and small details are accurately represented in Monk and Loiacono's play. However, at no point do they fall into the trap of getting too expository. Sometimes writers of period drama put their research in the way of the drama, but that is not the case here. The scene's feel grounded in character and conflict, and the tension of the impending court case that will decide Josefina's fate helps the play drive forward with momentum. This is also a credit to director Theresa Gambacorta, who has shaped the scenes well, and led her cast well through a lot of emotionally demanding material.
Terranova is one of the best-produced plays I have seen at FringeNYC, and executive producer Loiacono and associate producer Jean Marie Donnelly should be proud of this ambitious production. Natasha Daniels's excellent costume design puts you in the world of these characters, as does the music of Sicilian roots singer Michela Musolino to add flavor to the scene transitions.
Particularly good amongst the gifted cast are Italian actress Laura Lamberti as Josefina, whose internal life and presence keep the character compelling in even her quietest moments, and Steve DiNardo as John Palmieri, a solid presence throughout, as the more assimilated immigrant who is struggling to reconcile the laws of his new world with his loyalty to the old.
I highly recommend Terranova, and appreciate the ambition, production value, and craft of the play, and I was intrigued to discover this story from New York City's history that I had never heard before.