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THEATER REVIEW: “Anna In The Tropics”

Literature and longing face off with the forces of tradition and modernity in Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna In The Tropics,” getting a lovely production from Moonlight Theatre Productions at Vista’s AVO Playhouse.

It’s 1929 in Ybor City, a small town near Tampa, Florida and Cuban émigré Santiago (Daniel Novoa) and his half-brother Cheché (Manny Fernandes) are at the cockfights. Santiago loses again, borrowing money from Cheché against shares in Santiago’s cigar factory.

Meanwhile, the women – Santiago’s wife Ofelia (Debbie Nicastro) and daughters Conchita (Melba Novoa) and Marela (Jordan DeLeon) are at the port, awaiting the arrival of new lector Juan Julian (Steven Lone).

In Santiago’s factory, cigars are still hand-rolled, and by Cuban tradition a lector is hired to read to the workers because, as Marela puts it, his words are “like a breeze that breaks the monotony of this factory.”

But Cheché, unlike the rest of the family, is from the north and has ideas of modernizing the plant with machines. He is rabidly opposed to hiring a lector (his wife ran off with one some years back and he still hasn’t recovered), putting him at odds with the rest of the family. Worse, he takes a liking to Marela.

But Juan Julian is both handsome and charming, and the mostly female workers will lose themselves in the plot. Some will see themselves in the characters of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”

Take “Anna” equivalent Conchita, for example, trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage to fellow worker Palomo (Michael Cortez) and quite attracted to the new lector. Younger sister Marela also has her eye on Juan Julian.

It’s a setup for tragedy – and that will come, but not until the audience feels the Florida heat (thanks to N. Dixon Fish’s tropical set, Paul Canaletti, Jr.’s atmospheric lighting and Carlotta Malone’s summery costumes) and the boredom of repetitive work in the factory.

Director Carlos Mendoza (who clearly knows his way around this script) has a fine cast and a good sense for how to move them. Nicastro is outstanding as the strong and long-suffering Ofelia. Lone’s Juan Julian is not only convincing but easy on the eyes. My only cavil is that DeLeon needs to speak more slowly and project her voice more; on opening night it was often difficult to catch her words.

The play’s plot has discernible nods to Tennessee Williams and perhaps Chekhov, but what sets this script apart is the near poetry of Cruz’s language. Try this, from Marela, about Juan Julian: “You can smell the cologne from his handkerchief every time he dries his forehead. The fragrance wraps itself around the words like smoke.” Or this, from Juan Julian: “My father used to say (that) living in a city is like living inside the mouth of a crocodile, buildings all around you like teeth.”

Do factory workers talk like that? Does anyone? It doesn’t matter; you can’t help but be transported by them – and by Jim Zadai’s evocative sound design.

It’s not Anna in the tropics; it’s the audience, feeling right along with this family the heat, the longing and the push-pull of tradition and modernization.

The details

“Anna In The Tropics” plays through March 29 at the Avo Playhouse, 303 Main St. in Vista, California.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (760) 724-2110 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.