Anna in the Tropics

I have to admit, I spent almost the entire evening at the Aurora Fox either glancing at my watch or wondering why Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics had won a Pulitzer. It's not that the concept isn't terrific: The play is set at the turn of the last century in a small Cuban-run cigar factory in Ybor City, Florida — apparently once a center for the production of exquisite, handmade cigars — and it draws on a rich history. In those days, such factories employed a lector, who was paid by both the owners and the illiterate workers, to read aloud and help pass the tedious, repetitive hours. We know this story in so many manifestations: humanistic employers, workers who feel pride and ownership in what they do (the actors in this production actually roll cigars as they perform), and then the coming of mechanization, which will put first the lectors, then the skilled employees, and finally the mom-and-pop owners themselves out of work.

At the start, Cruz's lector has just arrived, and his choice of material is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. As he reads, his listeners find all kinds of parallels between their lives and those of the far-away Russian characters, and the experience brings them to a state of heightened awareness. Just as Anna, trapped in a loveless marriage, falls in love with Vronsky, so Conchita — whose husband, Palomo, routinely cheats on her — moves into a tranced relationship with the elegant, educated lector, Juan Julian. Who can argue with these themes — that literature has the power to change lives, that industrialization has been in so many ways a sad and dehumanizing thing?

The problem is, the play just won't hold together. It's limp and keeps falling apart. You can intellectualize about why the characters behave as they do, but you don't feel it in your own chest. The one shining moment is the dazed, inevitable coming together of Juan Julian and Conchita. Other than that, nothing makes much sense. The motivations of the central characters seem to shift according to the playwright's needs rather than some inner volition. Cheché, who's trying to take over the factory, is a destructive, money-hungry fellow and perhaps a rapist, but that doesn't stop him from grieving for the wife who's left him in the same cloudily lyrical phrases everyone else in the action seems to favor. Why does Conchita respond to Palomo's questions about her affair with Juan Julian with a flood of erotic detail? Is she trying to make her husband jealous? Does she hope to arouse his passions? Or is she simply so full of satiated joy that she can't help pouring it out? Maybe the script relies on our knowledge of Tolstoy's novel to illuminate this, but my memory of Anna Karenina isn't that detailed, and the scene left me mystified. At the very end of the play, there has been a rape (I think) and a murder — and the workers let it all go by without comment, their expressions, behaviors and ways of speaking absolutely unchanged.

What's lacking in the script could perhaps be provided by acting and direction, but neither director Melissa Lucero-McCarl nor her cast seem up to it, though the performances are serviceable, some better than that. As the factory owners, Gabriella Cavallero and Manuel Roybal are pleasantly naturalistic. Chelley Canales is a little too cute and self-conscious as the wide-eyed young Marela. Concetta Troskie has tremendous grace and charm, but she lacks the depths we need from Conchita. The only really inspired performance comes from Tyee Tilghman, whose beautiful dignity and restraint only heighten the sensuality he brings to the role of Juan Julian.

It could be that the author's poeticism is supposed to redeem all of this. Every single character is given to lyrical rhythms and extravagant — sometimes excruciatingly precious — metaphors: Ofelia's heart is a seal in her chest; Conchita has a long speech about her little braid, which someone or other is supposed to bury; Marela compares something — time or moments in time — to violet petals. No character is differentiated by his or her speech, which is one of the reasons that none of them feels real. I think of Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, Yerma and Blood Wedding, plays almost incoherent with poetry and passion. They are probably better read than performed these days, but the raging floods of words they contain have the power to surge from the page and hurl you into the vortex.

Anna in the Tropics just leaves you hanging.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman