When you see a lot of new American plays, you get used to lugging your trepidation into the theater. So much can go wrong, and frequently does: Plots fizzle. Cliches abound. Characters are reduced to mouthpieces for opposing ideas. But when Cuban-born playwright Nilo Cruz is in charge, you can relax. He’s the real deal: a playwright so authoritative, so adroit, even an imperfect play such as “Beauty of the Father” will leave you feeling richer and wiser than when you walked in.
“Beauty of the Father” debuted at Florida’s New Theater last winter. Cruz refashioned several passages for its opening at Seattle Rep, altering characters, cutting monologues and stitching new scenes together from the remnants of old ones. And while some seams still are visible, the play is taking shape as a thoughtful, engaging look at impossible love and irretrievable loss.
The “father” in Cruz’s play is Emiliano (Tom Ramirez), a middle-aged painter who lives by the sea in a small town near Granada, Spain. In the opening scene, he is reunited with his adult daughter Marina (Onahoua Rodriguez), who had been living in America with her mother since her parents parted many years before.
Two other people share Emiliano’s house — his companion Paquita (Karmin Murcelo), and a young Moroccan perfume merchant, Karim (Paul Nicholas), who hopes to become a Spanish citizen.
Over the course of the first act, we realize that all four people are in love — with the wrong people. As Cruz writes, “Love is absurd, my friend. Who we love is not the person in front of us, but the person we have fixed in our mind and heart.”
That line is spoken by the play’s fifth character, Federico Garcia Lorca, or rather Lorca’s ghost (Jonathan Nichols). Lorca has long been Cruz’s inspiration. Here, he hovers around the edges of Emiliano’s sun-drenched patio like a stray cat. It’s unclear exactly why he’s there; we just know that he’s restless in death, and that Emiliano (the one living person who can see him and talk with him) seems to need his company.
Not everything in “Beauty of the Father” makes sense — and not just because of the play’s touches of magic realism. There are holes in the story: Why does Marina turn her back on a chance at love? What happens when a person sacrifices one love (of a suitor) for another (of a parent)? And what does Karim really want? We can guess, of course, but it might be fruitful to give words to some of these characters’ conflicting desires.
Still, the characters all intrigue. Marina is a flighty young thing, yes, but she also makes a difficult, mature decision. Emiliano, an artist with a gentle soul, also is capable of great cruelty. Paquita is a middle-aged woman with an interesting past, who has had some disappointments, but is content in the skin she’s in. Director Sharon Ott shows them all to best advantage and, like the principles in a good book, by the end, you hate to see them go.
Nichols, as Lorca, is a particularly attractive character. And not just physically — though he is that — but attractive to the soul. He is a wise, wry observer, suave in his old-fashioned, white summer suit (designed by Deborah Trout). But he’s also deeply compassionate, moved to grief by scenes of familial discord or the recollection of sad memories. It is hard to imagine anyone playing this role better, Nichols strikes such a sure balance of depth and finesse.
In addition to five tremendously likable characters, “Beauty of the Father” offers up so much beautiful poetry, it’s hard to take it all in. One metaphor just begins to unfold in the mind when the next one leaps into the conversation (as when Lorca describes Emiliano and Marina as “a father and daughter playing marbles with their hearts”).
Cruz also does the audience the huge favor of avoiding cliche and melodrama. Perhaps that’s why his missteps can be forgiven. Plot points are fixable; a writer’s voice is not. And in “Beauty of the Father,” one of the American theater’s most promising voices rings true and strong.