With its poetic imagery, intense romantic longing, and bursts of soul-shattering brutality, Nilo Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Anna in the Tropics, is reminiscent of the work of Tennessee Williams. The mixed reviews that have greeted many productions suggest that its mix of melancholy, melodrama, and melodic language isn't easy to pull off. But when the elements come together, as they do quite marvelously in PCPA Theaterfest's production, the wisdom of the Pulitzer judges becomes clear. The playwright's skillful interweaving of internal and external conflicts makes for a rich, multilayered work that is also refreshingly direct -- and, in the hands of director Armando Molina, enticingly sensuous.
The setting is a cigar factory in Tampa, Fla. The year is 1929, but the Industrial Revolution has yet to fully intrude on this tropical outpost; the workers, most of whom are women, still roll the cigars by hand. As the play opens, a lector, Juan Julian (Mauricio Mendoza), has just arrived from Cuba to read to the employees as they work. The combination of his good looks, charm, and choice of reading material -- Tolstoy's Anna Karenina -- casts a spell on the factory floor, unleashing a variety of passions. Long-dormant urges rise to the surface, putting strains on romantic relationships and setting the stage for the play's tragic ending.
The highly accomplished cast does not hit a false note. As the lector, Mendoza is appropriately charismatic, but his finest moment comes as he reluctantly shares a painful childhood memory. It is clear from his far-away facial expression that he is reliving the past in his mind's eye. As Conchita, a worker whose needs for emotional intimacy are not being met, Isabelle Ortega conveys a deep sadness that subtly changes but does not abate when she begins an affair with the lector. Richard Anthony Gallegos is equally effective as her cuckolded husband, a character we gain respect for as he courageously faces his fears and limitations. As the husband and wife who oversee the factory, Leo Cortez and Catalina Maynard provide delightful comic relief; a scene in which they bicker, using their daughter as an intermediary, is a prickly delight. Frederick P. Deeben's attractive period costumes enhance our enjoyment, but the real pleasure is in watching this extremely able ensemble convey the emotional complexities of Cruz's earthy yet delicate play.
Anna in the Tropics runs June 30-July 15 at the Marian Theatre, Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria, Calif., and July 21-Aug. 6 at the Solvang Festival Theater, Solvang, Calif. Tickets: (805) 922-8313. Website: www.pcpa.org.