Review: Ground Floor Theatre's Anna in the Tropics

Life imitates art in this tantalizing production of a Pulitzer-winning play

(l-r) Victor Santos (Cheché), Michael Galvan (Palomo), Tonie Knight (Ofelia), and Briana Garcia (Conchita) in Ground Floor Theatre's Anna in the Tropics (photo by Cindy Elizabeth)

Nilo Cruz's compelling Anna in the Tropics, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, evokes the Cuban American world of Ybor, Florida, in 1929 – a town founded by cigar manufacturers, populated by immigrants, and on the verge of modernization. The play takes place in a small cigar factory owned and operated by a tight-knit family, where the monotony of sorting and hand-rolling tobacco lessens upon the arrival of Juan Julian, a young man hired to read aloud novels to the workers.

The book he selects is Leo Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina, which is filled with enticing romance, passion, and scandal. As each family member gets drawn into Tolstoy's narrative, they find that the book unleashes long-suppressed emotions and inspires bold acts of discovery and destruction that parallel those of the novel's characters. When it does, the clear and concise language Cruz provides for these simply drawn characters becomes enriched with brilliant flashes of romantic poetry and expressive imagery that expose their true complexity.

Mixed reviews and a short stay on Broadway suggest that it is not easy transferring what is on the page to the stage. But it sure seems easy and elegant in this Ground Floor Theatre production, as actors fully embody these characters and admirably serve up Cruz's bare lucidity and heightened language as if they were everyday discourse.

They are particularly effective when conveying their characters' unspeakable truths and overpowering yearnings. David Segura as the patriarch, Santiago, tenderly admits his addictions as well as his desire to rediscover the same passion for life and for his devoted wife, Ofelia (Tonie Knight), that he felt as a younger man. Briana Garcia as the unhappily married oldest daughter, Conchita, boldly establishes and then pursues her need for emotional and sexual intimacy at the hands of a lover. Michael Galvan beautifully transforms Conchita's selfish, unfaithful husband, Palomo, into a broken man who courageously comes to terms with his limitations. Cherry Mendoza is delightful as younger sister Marela, desperate for romance as she inches toward womanhood. Best of all is Victor Santos' powerful depiction of factory manager Cheché's loneliness, particularly when it festers into a desperate need to be heard and an aggressive pursuit of female flesh. Ben Bazan, as the lector Juan Julian, substitutes intelligence for the easygoing virility typically associated with the character, which works just as well in the production.

Performances are clearly informed by director Carl Gonzales' romanticism, which translates into nostalgic charm in the hands of designers Maggie Armendariz (scenic), Jacqueline Sindelar (lighting), and Desireé Humphries (costuming). The performance space features a hardwood factory floor surrounded by tall, whitewashed walls that are – like the characters themselves – distressed by the passage of time, depicting a faded fresco portrait of the family's cigar brand and revealing the red brick that lies beneath. There are no lamps in the factory, but summer sun and radiant moon still manage to illuminate the space and the rich, colorful period outfits worn by those who populate it. A melancholic guitar, played just offstage by Erik Flores, adds to the atmosphere as it underscores Gonzales' often artfully orchestrated scene changes.

Cruz's Pulitzer Prize for this play is impressive. But if the Broadway production of it had achieved the same aesthetics as Ground Floor's staging, he might have won a Tony as well.

Ground Floor Theatre's Anna in the Tropics

979 Springdale #122,
Through Aug. 27
Running time: 2 hrs.

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