'Tropics' burns with fiery
Ceiling fans rotate slowly, stirring the sultry
air and casting shadows on the walls of a small factory
where cigars are still rolled by hand. Birds chirp
in full chorus. And a guitar is strummed in the distance
as pink light pours through the shuttered windows.
We could easily be in Havana. But we are, in fact,
in Ybor City, Florida -- the Cuban-American exile
community -- circa 1929, where Nilo Cruz has set his
intimate, lushly poetic romantic tragedy, "Anna
in the Tropics," the play that won him the 2003
Well before that prize was awarded, Victory Gardens
Theater had made "Anna" part of its season.
And the gemlike production that opened Monday night
under Henry Godinez's sensitive, beautifully tuned
direction -- and with a lustrous cast that showcases
the extraordinary gifts of Chicago's sadly underutilized
Latino actors -- is a fine tribute to this lovely
work. To borrow a phrase from Cruz, this is a play
bathed in sugar and cinnamon water.
With hints of Anton Chekhov, Brian Friel, Tennessee
Williams and the Latin American authors of those ripe
fruit-and-spice novels of the 1970s and '80s, Cruz
has crafted a story that plays on the classic themes
of love, adultery, jealousy and change. And along
the way he has opened a window on a culture that has
largely disappeared. This is a play that comes streaked
with colors and smells, and with passions fit for
the opera house. In fact, in its singing, florid language
and its forbidden and all-consuming passions, "Anna
in the Tropics" has all the makings of an opera.
Two strands of storytelling are woven together from
the start. On one side of the stage, three exceedingly
pretty women -- Ofelia (Sandra Marquez) and her two
daughters, Conchita (Charin Alvarez) and Marela (Sandra
Delgado) -- await the arrival of a new lector, the
man hired to read novels to the workers of the cigar
factories. Dressed in their finest frocks (designer
Judith Lundberg's costumes are utterly beguiling),
each woman is clearly hoping the man will live up
to his photograph and their fantasies. And indeed,
Juan Julian (Dale Rivera) turns out to fit the bill.
On the other side of the stage are Ofelia's husband,
Santiago (Gustavo Mellado), the owner of the factory,
and Cheche (Ricardo Gutierrez), his half-brother from
New Jersey, who has some big ideas about modernizing
the operation. They are at a cockfight, and the inebriated,
free-gambling Santiago gets a loan from Cheche.
The novel that Juan Julian has chosen to read is
Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's complex anatomy of adultery
-- a dangerously suggestive tale given the tense state
of several of the relationships in this extended family.
And Tolstoy's subplot -- with its contrasting views
of country and urban life -- also strikes a chord.
Ybor City may be a world away from St. Petersburg,
Russia, but the characters' fire-and-ice dilemmas
Although Cruz's plot line may be predictable (and
a scene between step-uncle and young niece verges
on melodrama), his delicate but potent imagery, his
understanding of the different forms of love and romantic
expectation, and his sense of the heart's willfulness
are all faultless.
Godinez, himself a Cuban American -- and a director
at his best when dealing with the work of Latino writers
-- has cast this "Anna" to perfection. And
his actors bring a ravishing luminosity to Cruz's
Marquez is radiant and sharply funny as the still-elegant
and formidable matriarch. The tiny, wide-eyed Delgado
glows with all the innocence and heated imagination
of youth. And Alvarez, an actress of magnetic intensity,
is a searing presence as Conchita, the unhappy wife
who mirrors Tolstoy's Anna.
Rivera is all sophistication and worldly grace as
the lector, with the mellow, bearlike Mellado most
winning as the gentle father. Gutierrez is all creepiness
as the caustic, lonely Checha, and Edward Torres is
Conchita's alternately angry and fiercely aching husband.
In one of the play's loveliest scenes, the family
celebrates the creation of a new brand of cigar --
the "Anna Karenina" -- and each takes a
trial puff that reveals their soul and pays homage
to a lost world and a slower, dreamier way of life.
It says a great deal when a playwright can write in
'Tropics' burns with fiery passion