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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

2003 Pulitzer Prize Play Inaugurates
McCarter’s Berlind Theatre

Also see Bob's review of Wilderness of Mirrors

It's All True
John Ortiz and
Daphne Rubin-Vega

Anna in the Tropics, the Nilo (pronounced knee-low) Cruz play making its area debut at McCarter’s brand new Berlind Theatre, takes us to a world which will be new to most theatergoers.

It is 1929, and we are at a cigar factory established by Cuban immigrants in Ybor City, an area abutting Tampa, Florida. A new “lector,” or reader, Juan Julian, has been hired to read books to divert the workers while they hand roll the quality Cuban leaf in which they take pride. However, an era is coming to an end. Neither the “lector” nor the prideful craft labor can survive modern technology and changing tastes and values. Before this world breathes its last, Juan Julian and his reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will be the catalyst for an explosion of emotion, heightened consciousness and tragedy.

Author Nilo Cruz celebrates the values of this lost world. Most essentially, he celebrates literature and its power to enrich and transform.

In this play, there is more than one Anna of the Tropics, as Cruz makes it clear that the influence of literature goes beyond literal emulation of specific behaviors.

Although there is the suggestion of the presence of other workers, those whom we meet are family: the factory owner-father Santiago, his wife Ofelia, and their daughters, Conchita and Marela, all of whom embrace Juan Julian. In opposition to him are Conchita’s husband Palomo, and Santiago’s half brother Cheche.

Daphne Rubin-Vega as married daughter Conchita delivers a standout performance. She conveys the need to explore her soul, experience love and bare her grief with a conviction that comes from her very soul. Vanessa Aspillaga is believable and endearing as her silly and superficial, but no less needy, sister Marela. Priscilla Lopez conveys all the facets of their mother Ofelia with verisimilitude.

Victor Argo as Santiago is solid in a role which, although not showy, requires convincing adjustments in his demeanor and state of mind. David Zayas portrays Cheche, a spokesman and harbinger for the unpleasant future, conveying his harshness while allowing us to consider that he may be justified by practicalities. John Ortiz is believable as the uninsightful Palomo.

Jimmy Smits re-enforces the mythic, other worldly nature of Juan Julian. Both in costume and performance, he appears to be on a different plane than the other characters.

It appears that, in tone and landscape, Cruz intentionally evokes thoughts of Federico Garcia Lorca. Despite the fact that this play is a celebration of a lost world, there is an arc throughout the play leading to tragedy. At times, the poetic dialogue struck my ears as opaque and pretentious. On the unpretentious side, the notion of a person who crosses each day off the calendar as it begins is both funny and sad. What counts is that in both Anna in the Tropics and Two Sisters and a Piano, the two Cruz plays which I have seen, there is a sense of a gift for playwriting which makes it appear that Cruz may be very special.

The set by Robert Brill is simple but effective. There is what appears to be a corrugated tin wall running across the rear of the stage at a diagonal with the name of the cigar factory (flor del cielo) prettily painted on one end. It is most often fronted by two factory desks, a platform for the “lector” and a vat for drying tobacco leaves. The excellent lighting design of Peter Kaczorowski effectively suggests other spaces when necessary by blocking out areas with defined areas of light.

Director Emily Mann has elicited strong individual performances which fully embody Cruz’s text. Because of the mix of histrionics and poetry inherent in the play, a smoother ensemble would not serve the play as well. Additionally, she does sustain the tone of each scene as well as that of the whole unerringly.

Anna in the Tropics is the winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It won despite having been available to the committee only in script form. Prior to the award, its only production had been at the 100 seat New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida where Cruz was playwright in residence.

As seen at the McCarter, Anna in the Tropics proves to have been a worthy Pulitzer choice. Poetic and ambitious, it is clearly the work of a writer who can fill the stage with rich imagery and substantial theatricality. It also illuminates a very interesting, little publicized aspect of the American immigrant experience.

Anna in he Tropics play through October 19 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Roger S. Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J. 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787. Online: www.mccarter.org

Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz. Directed by Emily Mann.
Cast (in order of appearance): John Ortiz (Eliades, Palomo); Victor Argo (Santiago); David Zayas (Cheche); Vanessa Aspillaga (Marela); Daphne Rubin-Vega (Conchita); Priscilla Lopez (Ofelia); Jimmy Smits (Juan Julian).


Photo: T. Charles Erickson




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Bob Rendell



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