Anna in the Tropics, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning drama by Nilo Cruz, is classic in its theme, structure, and action. Like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, it can easily be called a modern tragedy, sown through with moments of comedy and heated romance. Frankly, as my better half and I strolled to the car for the ride home, I conjectured that the play is Shakespearean, even biblical, with a flawed king, his ambitious bastard half-brother, straying marital partners, and a charismatic stranger who upsets whatever fragile balance was extant.
Set in 1929 in Ybor City, a section of Tampa, Florida that was the center of the cigar industry, the opening scene features a cockfight in a which the drunken cigar factory owner, Santiago (Steve Wilcox), who is steadily losing money and borrowing more from Cheché, (Antonio Jaramillo), his half brother, is juxtaposed with a scene of three women anxiously awaiting the docking of a ship that is bringing a lectore de tabaqueres, a man who reads novels out loud as workers spend their days rolling cigars, a long standing tradition in the industry. In a gem of a short performance right at the outset, Christopher Cedeño as cockfight master, Eliades, calls for bets in a cadenced rhythm, again and again as Santiago goes deeper in debt to Cheché. Meanwhile Santiago’s wife, Ofelia (Jill Remez), and her daughters, young Marela (stunning, vivacious Jade Santana) and her older, married daughter, Conchita (Presciliana Esparolini), impatiently await the arrival of the Spanish-born lector who will read romantic novels to them as they work. They nearly swoon when he, Juan Julian (Byron Quiros), arrives and, in his bearing, manners, and voice, totally fulfills their expectations.
In the factory, Cheché proves to be a frustrated man who pushes for more control of the business and wants to modernize the operation with machines for rolling cigars like their competitors. His existential angst is compounded with shame that his wife ran off with the last lector and puts him in opposition to the suave, intellectual Juan Julian. Ofelia rules the factory while Santiago stews in his shame for having lost so much money, putting himself in an inferior position regarding his half brother. Throughout the play Juan Julian reads steamy passages from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, enchanting the workers as they roll their cigars. Conchita is especially taken with the reader, due in no small part to the fact that her husband, Palomo (Javi Mulero), is having an affair. The match is lit, steamy sex and brutality ensues as the action rockets to an explosive climax and a necessary dénouement.
Keenly directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, Anna in the Tropics is performed on an open set by Christopher Scott Murillo (lit by Matt Richter) that suggests the floor of a warehouse with high, dusty windows, and tables and chairs that are moved with precision by the cast, which also includes Jennifer Zorbalas as a factory worker. Costumes by Mylette Nora are appropriate for time, place and characters. The sound design by Tim Labor is superb. And the stage is managed Ben Scuglia with his usual competence.
Presented by Open Fist Theatre Company, Anna in the Tropic is produced by Martha Demson and Beth Robbins, and extends through June 22 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles.