A torrid time in a Tampa cigar factory, thanks to `Anna'

Award-winning play has its area premiere


October 13, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Anybody who dedicates his life to reading books believes in rescuing things from oblivion," a character says halfway into Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics.

The 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play not only advocates rescuing books, it also advocates rescuing romance, family and tradition.

As is fitting for a play about old-fashioned ideals, Anna - which is receiving its area premiere at Washington's Arena Stage - is also structurally old-fashioned, and the tale it tells is, in many respects, a time-worn account of love and loss.

Director Jo Bonney's production, however, viscerally incorporates the audience into the action in a way that feels distinctly modern. The first Pulitzer winner by a Latino playwright, Anna also does something common to many great works of art, new or old: It makes an unfamiliar place feel familiar.

The place is a cigar factory in Tampa in 1929. Following a custom from its native Cuba, the family that owns the factory hires a "lector" to read aloud to the workers while they make cigars. The book that this new Cuban emigre selects is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Cruz has chosen this novel carefully. For starters, Tolstoy's plot, as reflected in the passages incorporated into the script, foreshadows events in the play. Anna Karenina has an adulterous relationship at its core, and in Anna in the Tropics, the lector has an affair with the married older daughter of his employer.

But it's not just Tolstoy's plot that is ideally suited to Cruz's purposes. A Russian novel is also an appropriate choice politically. Lectors typically read newspapers, labor tracts and even the Communist Manifesto, along with literature. Bonney's staging exercises its own subtle socialist underpinning by turning us all into workers. For example, when the factory owner announces plans for a new cigar brand, he addresses his remarks to the audience as well as to the actors on stage.

The casting of Arena's production further enhances our ability to identify with the characters. The lovers - Yetta Gottesman and Jason Manuel Olazabal - look like real people, unlike Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega, the "beautiful" people who starred in the 2003 Broadway production.

The feelings conveyed by this pair and by the other cast members are also readily identifiable - the warm marital bond shared by Mateo Gomez and Marian Licha, as the factory's reckless but fatherly owner and his tender-hearted wife, and the sentimentality of Michele Vazquez as their smart, impressionable younger daughter.

Even the play's two villains convey recognizable emotions - the mixture of arrogance and insecurity of a cheating husband, portrayed by Felix Solis, and the outsider's frustration and sense of disconnection, portrayed by Chaz Mena, as the factory owner's half-brother, who's all too ready to jettison tradition in favor of modernization.

Aptly for a play about literature, Cruz's writing is poetic in its own right. The lector describes the clouds in Tampa as the largest he's ever seen - "as if they had soaked up the whole sea." And after tragedy strikes, the factory owner's wife says the silence is so heavy, "It's as if a metal blanket has fallen on us."

Anna in the Tropics makes a strong case for the transformative powers of literature. Willingly or not, all the characters absorb Anna Karenina, and their lives are changed by it. Cruz is also writing, however, about the importance of making time to savor the small things in life - "taking walks and sitting on park benches, smoking a cigar slowly and calmly," as the lector puts it.

Practicing what it preaches, Arena's poignant production weaves a transformative spell of its own. In these health-conscious times, it may not move you to light up a cigar, but it just might lure you to linger over a good book.

Anna in the Tropics

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and most Sundays. Through Nov. 21

Tickets: $45-$59

Call: 202-488-3300

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