Dale Rivera and Charin Alvarezin Anna in the Tropics(Photo © Liz Lauren)
Dale Rivera and Charin Alvarez
in Anna in the Tropics
(Photo © Liz Lauren)
Chicago's Tony Award-winning Victory Gardens Theater announced late last winter that it would open its next season with Anna in the Tropics by Cuban-American author Nilo Cruz. Soon after, the play won the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Overnight, Victory Gardens had a high-profile play and playwright on its schedule.

The South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California and the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey are also staging Anna in the Tropics, almost simultaneously with Victory Gardens. The Broadway-bound McCarter production features Latino star Jimmy Smits. In contrast, the Victory Gardens production boasts salt-of-the-earth Chicago actors and is the most intimate of the three stagings, performed in a 195-seat house.

Cigars are still hand-rolled in Anna in the Tropics, set in a small Tampa, Florida cigar factory in 1929. Santiago owns the family-run business but has gambled away a few shares to his sullen half-brother Cheche, the manager. Santiago's wife Ofelia, daughters Conchita and Marela, and son-in-law Palomo (Conchita's husband) are rollers. The silent drudgery of their job is alleviated by a "lector," hired to read newspapers, poetry, and novels to the workers. (The lector tradition, and most skilled rollers, were lost to rolling machines a few years later.)

Cruz opens the play with bold strokes, placing the men at a raucous cockfight on one side of the stage and the women on the other side, romanticizing the as-yet-unseen new lector. When Juan Julian arrives, he turns out to be young, handsome, and alluring. In seconds, Cruz has placed the pen and sword in opposition: blood sport against a spiritual ideal; the longings of the heart against violent reality. Resolving the conflict between longing and violence -- often different aspects of the same passion -- requires a blood sacrifice.

Juan Julian reads Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (pronounced in Spanish as "car-eh-NEEN-ah"), not knowing the passions that it inflames will make him part of three triangles. Triangle One: Cheche's wife has run off with a previous lector and now Cheche lusts after his beautiful niece, Marela, but she has eyes for Juan. Triangle Two: Santiago frustrates Cheche's plans to mechanize the factory, so Cheche has ample reason to despise both the lector tradition and Juan Julian himself. Triangle Three: Conchita and Palomo recognize the death of caring in their marriage and, with Palomo's tacit approval, Conchita and Juan become lovers. Juan is neither protagonist nor antagonist, but catalyst. The figures who must find paths out of the morass are Cheche and Palomo. One of them chooses violence.

The cast of Anna in the Tropics(Photo © Liz Lauren)
The cast of Anna in the Tropics
(Photo © Liz Lauren)
Cruz is not subtle. He states and repeats his themes in obvious strokes, and there is much heavy foreshadowing in the play. But the author's seemingly plain-spoken language frequently shimmers and is strong of rhythm. The passions of love and lust are delicately observed -- sometimes with wonder, never with vulgarity. The characters are sympathetic and true. Running just over two hours with intermission, Anna in the Tropics is nonetheless an unrushed play in which language is savored and emotions simmer. These are the reasons why it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Looking like a young Desi Arnaz, Dale Rivera cuts a handsome figure as the calm and courtly Juan Julian -- a character about whom we learn very little and who sometimes seems all things to all people. Serving as the antagonist, Ricardo Gutierrez conveys Cheche's pain and frustration, but there's more to the character than that. Ditto, Edward Torres, who offers an understated performance as Palomo against the spirited, sometimes fiery Conchita of Charin Alvarez. Sandra Delgado is youthful and dreamy as Marela, the least complete character, whose story is left unfinished. Gustavo Mellado and Sandra Marquez charmingly complete the cast as the Ma & Pa factory owners.

Director Henry Godinez -- a Cuban-born American, like Cruz -- seems not to have helped the actors display all the dimensions of the characters. This is especially true of Cheche and Palomo; the latter is the one who changes most, and we need to understand better the renewal of ardor that sparks his transition. Godinez has blocked the play simply on the small Victory Gardens stage, which is filled mainly with a large table and the cigar rollers' desks. We glimpse the ocean through the louvered windows of Mary Griswold's set, while ceiling fans cast rotating shadows on the walls thanks to Jaymi Lee Smith's soft, warm lighting. Judith Lundberg's often elegant, summer-weight period costumes complete the tropical feel.