Reading Can Be Dangerous

Anna in the Tropics, presented by PCPA.

Shows through July 15 at the Marian Theatre in Santa Maria, then at the Solvang Festival Theatre from July 21 through August 6.

Reviewed by Bojana Hill

When he was writing Anna in the Tropics, said Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, he “just loved the notion of illiterate cigar-rollers quoting Don Quixote and Shakespeare by heart. This play is about the need for culture, the need for literature. Art should be dangerous.” Anyone who watches the wonderful new production of Anna in the Tropics at PCPA will feel that Cruz is right about this danger. Literature does have the power to unleash secret longings, and can even unsettle the status quo.

Anna is based partly on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and is set in 1929 in a small town near Tampa, Florida, where the Cuban family Alcalar runs a cigar factory. The first scene immediately suggests a polarity. On one side of the stage, the beautiful, elegant Alcalar women are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a “lector,” while drunken men brawl and gamble on cock-fights at the opposite side. The appearance of the dashing, handsome Juan Julian with his white linen suit and courteous manner causes young Marela Alcalar to … well, you’ll have to see the play to find out about Marela’s embarrassment. From then on, Juan occupies the center of the family’s life, literally and metaphorically. As tradition requires, the cigar workers’ monotonous tasks are enlivened during hot and humid days by listening to “el lector” read poetry, news, or literature with “feeling and gusto.” Seated on his raised platform, the lector is a crucial connection to the larger world. But when Juan Julian begins to read Anna Karenina, he unknowingly becomes the catalyst for change in the lives of the Alcalar family. The romantic story of illicit love between Anna Karenina and Vronsky inspires passionate yearnings and dreams of exotic, faraway Russia. Marela becomes infatuated with Juan, but it is Conchita, the older, married Alcalar daughter, who consummates the relationship with him. The first act ends with a sensuous seduction scene that closely parallels the novel.

The second act fulfills the ominous forebodings, as expected. If the plot is predictable, the drama of the characters’ lives is no less real and poignant. The play’s tragic ending brings a sense of loss — not only of hopes, dreams, and life, but also of an era. Soon the manual cigar-rollers will be replaced by machines whose humming will in turn replace the lector’s velvety voice. The entire cast is excellent, particularly the female actors. Clad in beautifully designed period pieces, the three Alcalar women are portrayed with nuances necessary to express their rich and complex personalities.

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