Also see Ann's review of On the Town
Anna in the Tropics is set in 1929 in a small cigar factory in a warehouse in Ybor City, Florida. The owners and workers are Cuban immigrants, related by blood or marriage. They pride themselves on the traditional hand-rolled production method for their cigars. It is the custom in such factories for a lector to read works of literature to the workers as they perform their careful craft. In the Alcalar family establishment, a new lector, Juan Julian, has arrived to carry on the tradition, just as such traditions are fading away in light of more efficient and less personal manufacturing conditions. The female workers anticipate the new lector with delight; the readings offer opportunities for their imagination to take flight, as a romantic escape from the spare lives they lead. Two men see danger in the lector's arrival. Ché is bitter because his wife ran off with a previous lector, having been swept up in the romance of the words he read. Palomo fears the same fate for his wife, Conchita. The factory quickly falls under the spell of Juan Julian and his readings from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and lives are changed forever.
Santiago and his wife Ofelia struggle to keep their factory successful, competing against other more progressive factories. Santiago gambles and drinks a little too much, but Ofelia is strong and able to keep things running. Their daughters, young Marela and Conchita, and son-in-law Palomo complete the close family. Santiago's half-brother Chéche is outside the warm family circle, though he insinuates himself further and further into the company with a selfish desire to seek more profits by abandoning artisans for machines. There's little surprise that Chéche is bad news. Lector Juan Julian's arrival is highly anticipated by Marela, and her hopes are well fulfilled as Juan Julian is a handsome, articulate and sensual man. It's not long before his effect, by his presence and by the passionate drama of Tolstoy's classic, is intensely felt by both sisters, and the men in the factory react in troublesome ways.
Michael Duvert provides a natural, confident and compassionate portrayal of Juan Julian. It's no surprise that Marela has an intense crush on him, and Stephanie Beatriz is absolutely delightful as the young woman making the difficult transition to womanhood. Her giggles, her infectious smile and her girlish abandonment make Marela the most fleshed-out character on stage. A little more abrupt is the escalation of the lector's effect on Conchita, who is played very confidently by Veronica Cruz. Conchita is earthy and passionate, and she will not stand for the lack of respect shown by husband Palomo. Julio Monge is able to bring out Palomo's frustration, showing a sensitive side as he is affected by the readings of the lector. Strong performances are presented by Mele and Delgado as mother and father, particularly Delgado whose smoky voice adds depth to her robust and colorful portrayal. Doug Mertz doesn't hide the wickedness of Chéche, but subtlety is not expected for this character. It seems everyone is hoping he'll go away, even before he shows his full, villainous colors.
Anna in the Tropics is literary in theme, but also in the style of the dialogue. Cruz' writing is rich and lyrical in its imagery, yet not far beyond the realistic capabilities of the characters. The story we are seeing is slightly mystical, which partners well with the fictional Anna Karenina.
Sets by Michael Schweikardt are realistic and simple. They work perfectly with the lighting by John Lasiter and the incidental Cuban music (sound design by Zach Moore) to create the somewhat tropical atmosphere. Costumes by Susan Tsu are wonderful, from the men's suits to the women's peasant dresses.
Anna in the Tropics continues at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through December 5. For performance and ticket information, 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org or the box office at 621 Penn Avenue.