BSC’s “Anna in the Tropics” Inspires Passion

I must express my deep appreciation to Barrington Stage for producing the sumptuous Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz, the 2003 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama on their main stage. It was originally scheduled for 2020 but has survived the past two years of dislocation, and landed front and center in an exceptionally well cast and torrid production, on one of the most uncomfortably hot days of the year.

Photo by Daniel Rader

It is 1929 in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida and the family run cigar factory presided over by Santiago (Gilbert Cruz) and Ofelia (Blanca Camacho, strong woman) must replace their lector. These Cuban immigrants have brought the tradition of a lector over from the Island, who reads to the workers as they roll cigars. These well dressed, well-spoken readers educated, entertained and organized the workers. Santiago has gotten into a gambling debt with Cheché (Alexis Cruz) who now claims shares to the factory but the decision has been made by Ofelia. It is her and her daughters, Conchita (Marina Pires) and Marela (Gabriela Saker) who fight to retain the new lector, Juan Julian (suave Alex Rodriguez), once he starts and especially after he starts reading “Anna Karenina.”

What could be more outmoded than to hire someone to read a book to keep the workers’ minds engaged while they perform a repetitive, menial task? Why not just turn on a radio? Why do you need to hand roll cigars when a machine could do it quicker, more efficiently and cheaper? Why smoke cigars when cigarettes could satisfy your nicotine cravings cheaper and quicker? The pitched fight to stave off modernity is romantic and essential to the women. The parallels to producing theater are welcomed and encouraged.

Director Elena Araoz has assembled a powerful team to tell this story of tradition and progress. The cast is excellent, creating vivid portraits of these Latin Americans caught in the grip of history as they forge new lives in America. It includes Tony Winner (Angel in “Rent”) Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Paloma, Marela’s husband, who unapologetically cheats on her but takes great exception to her awakened passions. Alexis Cruz is dangerous, puffing himself up and asserting his authority garnered by the debt he holds over his half-brother. Alex Rodriguez is persuasive as the romantic object and inspiration for passion, and he has a very fine monologue about the value of the cigar. Gilbert Cruz alternates between drunken desperation and piteous patriarch as he tries to grovel his way back to authority, and surprisingly manages it.

Photo by Daniel Rader

Blanca Camacho holds the power and hires the lector in the first place, creating a new role for women in the new world. Marina Pires is dangerously sexy and poised to grab what’s been denied her, especially with her chic bobbed haircut. The opening of Act II with her and Juan Julián making love inspired audible commotion. Most eruptive is Gabriella Saker as Marela whose smiles, squeals and swoons light up the stage; she is combustible and sends off sparks with every encounter. Her fate is deeply troubling to us when she starts dressing as Anna.

The set designed by Justin Townsend is bisected by a beam running diagonally across the stage with the worker’s desks lined upstage. There is a beautiful scrim of clouds upstage which is artfully lit by María-Cristina Fusté; otherwise, the walls, stairs and work lights backstage are visible. A large trap door center stage provides an otherworldly, smoke-filled entrance for Juan Julián. Excellent work by the hair, wig and make-up designer J. Jared Janas.

What will they deem essential and what must they let go of? The play starts with simultaneous scenes: the women, all dressed in white with hats (resplendent costumes by Christopher Vergara) stand on the pier and await the ship bearing their new lector, while a cock fight with Santiago betting extravagantly and Cheché bankrolling him takes place below; delicious double work by Heredia as Eliades, the fight captain. We may recoil or turn up our nose at the thought of a cockfight, but the play’s explosive climax is perpetrated with a handgun which are even more prevalent in society now. How far have we evolved?

Marina Pires, Wilson Jermaine Heredia/Daniel Rader

A play about reading books has plenty of thoughts, ideas and quotes for you to savor. “Anybody who gives his life to the reading of books is concerned with saving things from oblivion.” And of course, most importantly in this swelteringly summer weather “there’s nothing like reading a winter book in the middle of summer.”

Barrington Stage has provided a golden opportunity to catch this rarely produced modern American classic in a superlative production of grace, beauty and passion. Grab it!

Through 7/30 at Barrington Stage Company

Tickets: www.barringtonstageco.org

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