'Two Sisters and a Piano' returns in tune with times

Times Staff Writer

Nilo Cruz must believe that nothing is more romantic than reading aloud -- presuming, that is, that the text is fairly steamy.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Anna in the Tropics," a hired reader enthralled the Depression-era workers at a Florida cigar factory with passages from "Anna Karenina."

In Cruz's earlier "Two Sisters and a Piano," now in a passionate production at the Old Globe's Cassius Carter Centre Stage, a Cuban lieutenant reads to a woman who's under house arrest for political dissent in 1991. His text consists of excerpts from letters written by the woman's husband in the United States -- letters that the Castro regime has withheld from her.

His reading drives her wild with desire. But the desire isn't just sexual. For 36-year-old Maria Celia (Socorro Santiago) and her equally housebound 24-year-old sister, Sofia (Gloria Garayua), freedom is at stake. And just as listening to her husband's letters stokes thoughts about what might be for Maria Celia, so does playing romantic strains on the piano for Sofia.

The yearning is even more intense in "Two Sisters" than in "Anna" -- and more organically developed. Because of Maria Celia's political writings, the sisters spent two years in prison. Now that they're back in their family home -- but confined to it -- they're keenly aware of everything they can't have.

Sofia listens through a wall to monitor the comings and goings of the man who lives next door. After Cuban athletes triumph in the Pan American Games, the sisters hear the sounds of celebrations in the streets -- but they can't join the throngs.

At first, Lt. Portuondo (Philip Hernandez) comes into their lives as a rather brutish interrogator. But after Maria Celia writes a letter of complaint to his bosses, he returns with a more moderate tone. He's fascinated by Maria Celia, and he offers to read excerpts from her husband's confiscated letters -- if she'll tell him the new story her husband says she's writing.

Presumably the lieutenant is trying to glean clues about what's going on between husband and wife. But Maria Celia's story, about a woman who visits a man at a marina, is sketchy and ambiguous, not nearly as mesmerizing or as detailed as her husband's letters. In fact, the husband sounds like the better writer. Still, the sexual tension generated by the exchange is hardly ambiguous. Sofia's sexual feelings are on edge too, after an apparently receptive piano tuner (Jesse Ontiveros) changes his tune.

Sofia finally breaks out of the house one night and learns that the Soviet Union is disintegrating. This news has a big effect on what happens next to the sisters -- a rare case in which a faraway political development is a plausible reason for a play's characters to alter their behavior.

Except for a few blocked sightlines, the arena-style configuration of the theater serves the play well in Karen Carpenter's staging. The sisters live in a hothouse, and everyone in the audience is only a few feet away from the heat (as the audience also was in the West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory in 1999).

Kris Stone's set gets a little too complicated, however. She designed a couple of portals that lie flat on the surface of the yellow floor. One of them looks like a window and opens into a slightly lower playing area, which works well enough. The other, however, is a rectangular door-like structure, broken into several compartments. It's located near the stage entrance that supposedly faces the Cuban street, but it never opens or otherwise serves as an actual door. It serves more as a doormat -- the actors simply walk over it, as if it isn't even there.

The performances create enough sparks to prevent us from being distracted by the set. Santiago is a furious ball of resentment and skepticism, but her transmutation into a more hopeful woman is convincing. Garayua's transparent emotions take the audience along on every beat of her performance. Hernandez establishes the lieutenant's unflinching virility only to let us catch him flinching on occasion. Ontiveros provides amiable comic relief.

With recent crackdowns on Cuban dissidents in the news, this play is all too timely. But it's also a play that transcends the topical.

Its revival helps consolidate Cruz's reputation.

*

'Two Sisters and a Piano'

Where: Old Globe Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: April 11

Price: $19-$47

Contact: (619) 239-2255

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Socorro Santiago...Maria Celia

Gloria Garayua...Sofia

Philip Hernandez...Lt. Portuondo

Jesse Ontiveros...Victor Manuel

By Nilo Cruz. Directed by Karen Carpenter. Set by Kris Stone. Costumes by Charlotte Devaux. Lighting by Chris Rynne. Sound by Paul Peterson. Pianist Karl Mansfield. Stage manager Tracy Skoczelas.

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