Celebrating a 40-year history of quality product, South Coast Repertory maintains its high standards with Nilo Cruz’s original and absorbing Pulitzer Prize winner “Anna in the Tropics.” Cruz, the first Latin American to win the accolade, has created a lean, tightly constructed narrative where poetry and straightforward drama comfortably co-exist. The concurrently running production at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater is set for a Nov. 16 Broadway opening, but SCR’s version has portrayals by Adriana Sevan, Jonathan Nichols and Tony Plana that would be tough to top.
Cruz’s concept has built-in fascination. Set in 1929 Florida, and subtly propelled by Christopher Webb’s guitar and piano music, it opens as three excited cigar factory workers — sisters Conchita (Adriana Sevan) and Marela (Onahoua Rodriguez) and their mother, Ofelia (Karmin Murcelo) — await the arrival of Juan Julian (Julian Acosta), a lector, hired to read to them while they work rolling cigars. Their unfulfilled emotional longings are cleverly contrasted with alternating sequences of male co-workers betting on a cockfight.
Juan Julian inspires the gushing awe of this enraptured female trio and thus the resentment of the men, so the stage is set for disaster. Cruz wisely takes his time, never rushing events or broadcasting the inevitable tragedy. Ofelia’s husband, Santiago (Tony Plana), who has lost money gambling and endangered the security of the business, is too overwhelmed by his own shame to worry about Juan Julian’s reading of “Anna Karenina” and the ways in which Tolstoy’s tale of doomed lovers begins to drastically affect the behavior of his employees. But his half-brother Cheche (Geoffrey Rivas), who loathes all lectors because one of them stole his wife, makes his contempt clear, and Palomo (Jonathan Nichols), Conchita’s adulterous husband, grows increasingly incensed after learning his wife and Juan Julian are having an affair.
A hot, drenching sensuality is written into Cruz’s situations and dialogue, and director Juliette Carrillo captures the scorching eroticism in a key second-act love scene. At other times, her direction is too tentative and tasteful, and the choice of Julian Acosta as the lector is a miscalculation. Acosta lacks the requisite charisma and roguish sexuality. He looks right in the slick white suit designed by Joyce Kim Lee — tall, mustachioed, with shiny black hair — but he’s not a figure who would automatically provoke homicidal jealousy and worshipful adoration. Though competent, it’s a close-but-no-cigar interpretation of a potentially devastating role.
On the other side of the spectrum is Sevan’s magnificent Conchita, a plain, repressed and ignored wife who blooms sexually while listening to Juan Julian read “Anna Karenina’s” riveting romantic passages. She excels in an almost unbearably intimate scene, frankly describing specific details of her illicit lovemaking to her husband. Nichols’ response when she tells him, “He pounds so hard inside me as if to kill me,” is a haunting mixture of loss, surprise and competitiveness.
Plana’s Santiago provides a stinging portrait of a beaten man who finds the inner resilience to absorb his wife’s cry “Nothing works on his body — just his rotten teeth to chew away money,” rally from the blow and reclaim his lost pride. Rodriguez is endearing as young, impressionable Marela, although she doesn’t completely convey the full tragic dimensions of the part. Rivas, playing a man hellbent on eliminating lectors and modernizing the factory with machines, is convincingly coarse as the angry Cheche, and Murcelo’s Ofelia is a pillar of strength and resigned wisdom.
Implicit throughout is Cruz’s passionate point: The heartless wheels of progress take away much more than lectors; they rob the world of human interaction and the joy of appreciating art and literature.