The corpus of world-famous literature in which cigars play memorable parts is relatively small: “The Sun Also Rises,” “Carmen,” the Kenneth Starr report. Now there’s a valuable potential addition to this select company: Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Anna in the Tropics,” which opened South Coast Repertory’s 40th season in high fashion Friday night.
A deceptively simple tale of life emulating Tolstoy, “Anna in the Tropics” wears its themes and similes very openly on its starched, white sleeve. But open, in this case, isn’t the same as obvious. “One can always hide behind light,” a character observes early in the play. As it turns out, she’s not only anticipating the darker turn of events to come. She’s pointing to a crucial quality of this beautifully written period piece, which conceals subterranean strata of thought and feeling beneath its alluring, seemingly transparent surface.
Light’s ambiguous properties are, not surprisingly, well-known to the play’s main characters, an extended family of Cuban American cigar-factory workers in Ybor City, a sunbaked, working-class suburb of Tampa, Fla. Still steeped in many of their homeland’s old-fashioned manners and mores, both genteel (formal speech patterns) and rowdy (cockfighting), these island refugees are living on the cusp of modernity and middle-class ascendancy.
The year is 1929, and while cigar-making remains a time-consuming, mostly hands-on business, there’s anxious talk in the humid air of new technologies that are sweeping aside tradition and replacing humans with machines. Another likely casualty of this transformation will be the peculiar institution of the lectores -- educated, well-heeled men who are paid to read novels, newspapers and labor union material to the cigar-factory workers as a distraction from their repetitious labors.
As the play opens, the robust family patriarch, Santiago (Tony Plana), and his prickly half-brother, Cheche (Geoffrey Rivas), are drinking and betting on the battling roosters, while the family’s female members nervously await the arrival from Cuba of a different exotic bird, the new lector. From the moment Juan Julian (Julian Acosta) appears in his impeccably fitting cream-colored suit, it’s as plain as the Panama hat on his head that the other characters’ lives are about to change radically.
To the women, Juan Julian is as alluring as any Hollywood matinee idol, and this cultured, well-spoken man casts an immediate spell over Marela (Onahoua Rodriguez), the family’s younger daughter. Soon, he will have her imagination brimming with starry and star-crossed visions of the 19th century Russian aristocracy as he paces the factory floor reading from Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina.”
His charms are equally potent for Marela’s older sister, Conchita (Adriana Sevan), whose marriage has begun to suffer from husband Palomo’s infidelity. Even the sisters’ propriety-minded mother, Ofelia (Karmin Murcelo), feels her temperature rising.
An Andy Garcia look-alike, the tall, well-built Acosta cuts a dashing, imperial figure with his aquiline profile and suitably self-dramatizing attitude. His debonair interpretation of Juan Julian is perhaps not quite as magnetic or polarizing as the character appears on the page. Jimmy Smits is currently playing the role at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.
Even so, Acosta’s portrayal is smoldering enough to spark romantic intrigue and commandingly complex enough for Juan Julian to be a credible threat to two other male characters, for different reasons. Palomo, anguished over his own adulterous behavior, perceives a sexual rival in the smooth interloper, while Cheche, a blunt-spoken man whose wife ran off with a previous lector, resents the new reader not only because his talents make women go weak in the knees but because he symbolizes an outmoded luxury in the bottom-line world of American business.
It doesn’t take a freewheeling imagination to figure out how, or even when, Cruz plans to set a match to these combustible elements. Yet somehow, “Anna in the Tropics” doesn’t feel predictable. Repeatedly, Cruz finds a way to vary his narrative flow without resorting to contrivance. As tensions mount in Act 2, when the family holds a liquored-up party to celebrate the launching of a new cigar, Murcelo’s tipsy Ofelia, loose-tongued and loose-limbed, engages in some revealing physical comedy that raises rather than lowers the rising dramatic stakes. And when Conchita and Palomo engage in two painful wife-husband confrontations -- one bruising, the other achingly tender -- the exchanges seem as naturally rhythmic as a well-practiced cumbia.
Cruz has a remarkable gift for sublimating moods (erotic, menacing) and ideas (political, cultural) beneath the lush atmospherics of language, though you may need a pair of waders to make it through one or two of his swampier metaphors (“I detect sad trees in your eyes after we make love.”). His words are impeccably served by a perfectly balanced ensemble cast, whose members seem to thrill to the task of finding the partly hidden inner life of his richly perfumed language.
Directed by Juliette Carrillo with carefully measured urgency and an aromatic blend of crispness and contemplativeness, this is a production to enjoy in the moment, then savor upon reflection.
The same holds true for Christine Jones’ effectively understated set design -- a multipurpose wooden scaffold strung with tobacco leaves that look like sheaves of parchment, against a billboard-sized backdrop of painted palm trees -- and especially Christopher Akerlind’s psychologically apt lighting design.
At the end of this remarkable play, both the harsh Florida glare and the melancholy glow of a vanished world have yielded to the even greater illumination of poetic truth.
Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesday-Sunday, 7:45 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m.
Ends: Oct. 25
Contact: (714) 708-5555
Running Time: 2 hours
Julian Acosta...Juan Julian
Written by Nilo Cruz. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. Scenery Christine Jones. Costumes Joyce Kim Lee. Lights Christopher Akerlind. Original music and sound design Christopher Webb. Production manager Jeff Gifford.