When I first heard the premise for Anna in the Tropics, I assumed this play was a comedy—a mash-up of Anna Karenina with Cuban emigres in a Florida cigar factory: hilarity ensues. And while this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Nico Cruz—which Barrington Stage Company had planned to produce in the ill-fated summer of 2020 (when Berkshire theaters were dark, as were the rest of the nation’s stages)—has many moments of levity, like the sprawling Tolstoy novel at its core, it is a work of tragedy.
The play hinges on the phenomenon of lectores in cigar factories—people hired by the workers to read to them as they performed their routine, manual labor of rolling and stuffing cigars. It was a turn-of-the century tradition in Cuba that took root in the US along with the immigration of cigar makers to Florida. Lectors would read everything from newspapers to history lessons to literature; they were educators as much as entertainers, and they introduced political ideas to the workers that some say were critical in fomenting strikes.
In Anna in the Tropics, the lectors do rile up the workers—not with politics, but with yearnings…for big ideas, for the ability to express themselves, for faraway places, and, most disastrously, for romance. When Chester—called Cheché—the half-brother of factory owner Santiago, dismisses the lector’s readings as love stories, Santiago’s elder daughter Conchita refutes him, asserting that it’s literature, it’s educational and enriching, expanding their minds and introducing new ideas. But she has more than new ideas on her mind.
We meet the cigar factory family as a new lector is due to arrive by ship from Cuba. We’re in Ybor City in 1929, in the late days of the roaring ‘20s before the Stock Market Crash. Cheché and Santiago are betting on cockfights, and Santiago is losing so badly he gives up shares of the factory to his half-brother rather than go home and ask his wife Ofelia for more money to gamble away. At the same time, Ofelia, Conchita, and younger daughter Marela are at the pier, waiting to meet Juan Julian, the replacement for their longtime lector, who has died at age 80 after a decade on the job.
The women are swooning over Juan Julian even before he disembarks, nattily attired, a stack of books in hand. But Cheché has it in for the lector before he even meets him. His wife ran off with another lector after being carried away by passion while listening to him read those love stories; nursing his resentment and focusing it on Juan Julian, he intends to dispense with this tradition by any means possible, including a plan to modernize the factory with machines that would be so noisy they’d drown out any reading.
As you might have already gathered, the book Juan Julian selects to read is Anna Karenina, and it casts a spell that enchants the workers in a distant world of romance. Conchita (lustfully played by Marina Pires) begins to view herself as a modern-day, Cuban-American Anna who will make do with her passionless marriage to Palomo while following through on her attraction to Juan Julian. The lector (elegantly embodied by Alex Rodriguez) takes advantage of the power of literature; recognizing the seductive sway his readings have over Conchita, he flames their mutual attraction, and the two engage in a passionate affair with the full knowledge of her husband, which also also kindles Palomo’s desire for his wife.
Younger sister Marela, played by Gabriela Saker with wide vacillations between high-energy girlish fantasies and bouts of the pouts, dreams of Russian snow-covered landscapes and high society; despite the tropical heat of Tampa, she dons arctic costumes—a fur coat and hat, a luxurious ball gown—whenever the opportunity presents itself. She also yearns for Juan Julian’s affection. Left in the wake, rejected on all fronts, Cheché simmers in resentment, eventually reaching the boiling point.
The simple set design serves the narrative, with a bare bones structure creating various locations under a stormy-cloud sky. Using smoke/fog and darkness, scenic designer Justin Townsend and lighting designer Maria-Cristina Fusté create a steamy atmosphere in tropical Tampa, matching the passionate drama. Costume designer Christopher captures the mood in Conchita’s flapper-esque garb and Marela’s over-the-top ensembles.
As Santiago, Gilbert Cruz manages to hold the stage in whatever scene he’s in. As Ofelia, Blanca Camacho touchingly conveys her love for Santiago, despite his drinking, gambling, and sullen spells. Alexis Cruz brings a hot-headed ferocity to the role of Cheché, facing frustration at every spurned idea or advance. Wilson Jermaine Heredia demonstrates versatility as the lively Eliades, running the cock-fight ring, and beaten-down Palomo.
At times, the action of Anna in the Tropics bogs down a bit with florid language, overloaded with metaphor after metaphor. I don’t think this is a failing of director Elena Araoz, but more a fault of the writing. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read Anna Karenina, nor any other books by Tolstoy, so I can’t say if Cruz’s writing style in this play is an homage to the iconic Russian writer. But there might be an allusion to one of Tolstoy’s fellow members of the Russian literature pantheon—Chekhov’s famous words of advice to another playwright of his era: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.”
Barrington Stage Company’s production of Anna in the Tropics runs through July 30 at the Boyd-Quinson Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.