Onahoua Roridguez and Julian Acosta
in Anna in the Tropics
(Photo © Cristofer Gross)
Onahoua Roridguez and Julian Acosta
in Anna in the Tropics
(Photo © Cristofer Gross)
An evening of contemplation and language, Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna in the Tropics explores literature's power to affect even the most humble lives. The 2003-2004 season opener for South Coast Repertory's Julianne Argyros Stage, Anna is a startling story of a family of Cuban cigar rollers in 1920s Florida whose lives are enlivened and disturbed by a stranger, a pied piper who brings to them the passions of Tolstoy and his tragic heroine Anna Karenina.

In the Cuban culture, a lector reads to workers to educate and stimulate their minds during the doldrums of their repetitive tasks. As the play begins, the lector at Santiago's cigar factory has just died of old age. The women anxiously await the new lector while the men waste their time and hard-earned money at the cock fights. The new lector is Juan Julian (Julian Acosta), a swarthy lothario; he arrives with the novel Anna Karenina in hand, a book that will awaken the women's sexuality while enflaming the men's jealousy.

For Santiago (Tony Plana) and his wife Ofelia (Karmin Murcelo), the story of Anna, her husband, and her lover rekindle their love and his fervor for the business. Palomo (Jonathan Nichols) and Conchita (Adriana Sevan) reenact aspects of Tolstoy's novel, performing a devil's waltz as they both flaunt their indiscretions. On the fringe, Marela (Onahoua Rodriguez) escapes her tired life through the glamour of the movie stars whose pictures she pastes on her workbench. The last worker is Cheche (Geoffrey Rivas), Santiago's half-brother, who hasn't recovered from his wife's having abandoned him for a lector. He considers Juan Julian a cancer among the workers. Amidst the palm trees, these workers play out their drama, touched deeply by Anna Karenina.

The style of Cruz's ripe play is a heightened reality in which uneducated people speak poetically. The dialogue contains some breathtaking verbal allegories. Cruz turns literature itself into a main character; it's no surprise that he names one of his leads Ofelia, a reference to Shakespeare's ill-fated Ophelia. Literature, more than the lector, is the catalyst for the events of Anna in the Tropics: It opens worlds of possibilities to those trapped in their circumstances but also serves as a mirror in which others may observe and judge themselves.

Juliette Carrillo's direction of the play is piercing. She keeps the pacing swift while allowing passion to bubble underneath, leading to the inevitable conclusion. Carillo's one misstep is the casting of Acosta as the Don Juan of this story; instead of smoldering, he comes off as oily, and the character's fate leaves us cold due to the actor's lackluster interpretation. (Jimmy Smits, who played the role at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey and is set for the upcoming Broadway production, would seem to have the raw sex appeal necessary to make Juan Julian mesmerizing.)

The rest of the cast shines. Murcelo and Plana conjure up a history of marriage in their repartee. As the innocent but longing Marela, Rodriguez is the quintessential kid sister, naïve and hungry for attention. In the play's showiest role, Sevan is electric as a woman stewing with sexual longing after years of humiliation; when interest is finally paid to her, she's enraptured.

The production values add much to the already rich play. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind fills the stage with stark whites and simmering yellows; these combine with the etched brown wood of Christine Jones's simple set to create a hot, dry atmosphere that's as crisp as the hanging tobacco, ready to ignite the passions of the factory workers. Costume designer Joyce Kim Lee contrasts the drabness of the workers' clothing with the lector's flashy white suit and Marela's fur outfit, which is meant to resemble Anna Karenina's Russian vestments. This helps us differentiate between the world in which these people live and the outside influences that color their lives.

Thanks to Carrillo's solid direction and some brave performances, particularly that of Adriana Sevan, this West Coast premiere production of Anna in the Tropics may well prompt audience members to question how literature influences the decisions they make in their own lives.