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The Great Escape

Stories Prime Life Changes In Cuban Playwright's Celebrated Drama

ROLL `EM: (from left) Carolyn S. White, Jane Steffen, and Jaye Nicole get all semi-tropical.

By R. Darryl Foxworth | Posted 10/17/2007

Anna in the Tropics

By Nilo Cruz

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through Oct. 21

Escapism is an inadequate attempt at avoiding the laborious and unpleasant aspects of life. You should not simply engage in fanciful daydreaming; you should live it. And it is the responsibility of the lector--a prominent character in Nilo Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Anna in the Tropics--to promote a sort of hollowed escapism. But the lector is no villain: His presence is meant to entertain, enchant, and motivate his audience, the lowly industrial workers assigned him, thereby making the monotony of their labor more bearable.

But Juan Julian, the lector of Cruz's finely crafted play, does much more than entertain a family of Cuban cigar makers. His reading of Anna Karenina--Leo Tolstoy's classic tale of a discontent noblewoman spurred into adultery and suicide--causes divisiveness, jealousies, and contempt among them.

Set in 1929, Anna revolves around a family of workers living in the Ybor City section of Tampa, Fla. Half-brothers Santiago (Richard Peck) and Cheche (Michael Leicht) operate a fledgling cigar factory suffering from the affects of modernity: The cigar industry is on the cusp of an overhaul, replacing handmade and -rolled cigars with those produced by machines, leading to greater cost and production efficiencies. But only Cheche acknowledges this shift, and his voice is further stifled by the arrival of Juan Julian, played subtly by Mark Poremba.

Santiago's daughter Conchita (Jane Steffen) takes on the titular role of Anna: Her husband, Palomo (Mike Ware), maintains a mistress, and their marriage is loveless and passionless. Tolstoy's tragic romance unleashes Conchita's long-concealed sensuality and unbridled desires, with Julian the beneficiary. Conchita's sister, the young Marela--portrayed with great aplomb by Jaye Nicole--is also enamored with the newly arrived lector, whose presence has ignited the proverbial fire within all of the family's women, including the matriarch, Ofelia (Carolyn S. White).

But Julian's arrival is not met without resistance. Cheche is no longer convinced of the necessity of lectors and feels that the money being directed to Julian would be better spent on modernizing the factory. Cheche has migrated from the Northeast after the love of his life left him for another lector; in fact, Julian's very presence reminds Cheche of his wife's betrayal.

Palomo is aware of his wife's adulterous relationship with the lector, and this drives him into fits of jealousy and anger; only now does he recognize her significance to him. Like Cheche, Palomo harbors a sort of rage against Julian.

Like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Cruz's play ends in tragedy--and an homage to that novel's opening lines. Anna is littered with eloquent and lyrical dialogue, so much so, in fact, that the plot becomes secondary. It is the dialogue that dazzles here. Triumphant soliloquies and monologues mask a rudimentary and lackluster story, and it's difficult to ascertain whether Anna makes for a better read than it does a stage performance.

This is not meant to demerit this production: Fell Point Corner Theatre' Anna is full of impressive and credible performers. Poremba's understated portrayal of Julian perfectly mirrors that lector's role--not to be a star himself, but to facilitate the imaginations and yearnings of his audience. Poremba makes sure never to overstep his cast mates, whose characters are meant to hold the spotlight.

Steffen is mesmerizing as Conchita; she maintains an alluring sensuality throughout the play, a stark contrast to the surrounding characters. Nicole's Marela is equally as mesmerizing: She is at times childlike or forceful, naive or worldly. Her Marela often provides an element of humor and candor essential to such a sad story.

But this rendition of Anna in the Tropics is missing a level of consistency that would otherwise elevate it. Certainly, all the pieces are there--a quality cast and an award-winning script--but this interpretation sometimes drags and fails to captivate. Solid performers do fine things with this much ballyhooed play, but the overall production leaves you wanting, as though you've been cheated out of better things to come.

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