To make products appealing in today’s market, just attach the word “artisanal.” It’s trendy, foolish, and often disingenuous, but it reflects a genuine public desire for a lost homespun ethos. That world has for the most part disappeared. But the cigars made by the memorable characters of Anna in the Tropics, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz, honestly merit the “artisanal” tag. So does the play, and so does the solid new production by the Gallery Players.
Set during Prohibition, the vivid and deeply literary Anna in the Tropics dramatizes the industrial-age conflict between man and machine that’s still upending businesses and families today. A family of Cuban expats living in Tampa, Florida runs a small handmade cigar-rolling operation. Today, in addition to calling the products artisanal, we’d probably apply the word “boutique” to the company. But there’s nothing recherché or precious about the cigar-making at the little manufactory owned by Santiago (Peter Tedeschi) and Ofelia (Rebecca Smith).
Their daughters and son-in-law all work for the company, where at first glance things seem pretty happy. We’ve seen that Santiago is betting on cockfights and borrowing money he can’t repay from his half-brother Cheché (Sergio Mauritz Ang), but all of that has the feel of family squabbling, not disaster in the making. Cheché, or Chester, is an outsider from “up north” who has been taking more and more initiative in running the company. He wants desperately to bring the operation into the 20th century by introducing disruptive machines likely to result in layoffs.
He’s also mourning the loss of his beloved wife, who has run off with the lector, a person traditionally hired by Cuban companies to entertain the workers by reading books aloud. We meet Ofelia and her daughters awaiting the arrival of the new lector, the charming and handsome Juan Julian (Fabricio Santos). Ofelia tries to keep Marela’s (a wonderful Maylin Castro) feet on the ground, but her younger daughter is irrepressibly excited and bubbly.
Elder daughter Conchita (a marvelous Abby Hawk) is cool and collected. We soon learn the likely reason. Love has gone out of her marriage to the unfaithful Palomo (an excellent John Squires).
All three are primed for disruption with Juan Julian’s arrival. But what drives the story is the oh-so-resonant yarn he reads to them: Tolstoy’s tragic Anna Karenina. The play’s brilliance lies, first, in its integration of events and themes from the novel with the woes and desires of Cruz’s fictional family. Second, Cruz masters a tropical, poetical, even florid idiom that recalls García Márquez or Jorge Amado more than the speech of real people, yet makes the characters who speak it feel sweatily real.
The scenes focused on the younger generation feel especially visceral. Marela emerges in a gaudy Russian-style outfit ready to be photographed as the face of Santiago’s new cigar brand. Juan Julian puffs comically on the maiden stogie at the celebration of the new line. Cheché breaks down, finally, spewing out the pain and anxiety he’s been suffering, before tragically acting out.
Most compelling of all is Conchita’s confrontation with her cheating husband, a scene played with a rare mixture of eloquence and raw emotion. Contrasting starkly with her bickering parents’ warm, lasting devotion, and with Marela’s starry dreams of romance, it clangs forcefully, even as two onstage musicians smooth us from scene to scene with trumpet, percussion, and bass.
The play remains powerful in our present age marked by “artisanal” consumerism along with threats to jobs from artificial intelligence. The Gallery Players’ revival is a commanding one, with some very fine performances and strong direction from Mark Gallagher. It runs through 4 November. Visit the website for schedule and tickets.