Conchita (Laura Kaldis) and Juan Julian (Ilich Guardiola). Photo by Doug Killgore.
Never underestimate the power of Tolstoy. Read Tolstoy aloud and you can expect trouble. Make the book Anna Karenina and you get Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Anna in the Tropics, which chronicles the havoc that ensues when a dashing lector shows up at a Miami cigar factory in 1929. Anna Karenina’s adventures begin to play themselves out in the daily lives of the factory workers, causing the women to examine the quality of their lives and the men to be generally annoyed and perplexed.
The cast—terrific all—manage to let Cruz and Tolstoy’s language carry us away. Luisa Amaral-Smith imbues Ofelia with amble gusto and verve in a wonderfully lively performance. Illich Guardiola smolders as the lector who charms the women thoroughly, not only with his deft reading but his poignant interpretations of Tolstoy. Richard Solis plays Cheché as the literature-hating thug with a stern demeanor. We truly believe this guy hates books, especially romantic ones, which remind him of his estranged wife. Joel Sandel’s understated performance of the distant husband Palomo works well. His transformation at the end of the play feels authentic as he timidly continues where the lector left off before being shot by Cheché. Laura Kaldis delivers a sharp and sexy rendition of the woman that falls the hardest, Conchita. Mimi Martinez’s innocence comes through as Marela and Charles Tanner gives Santigo a stoic presence. Their chemistry as an ensemble works beautifully throughout.
Steve Garfinkel’s direction is spot-on allowing for the dramatic tension to build like a slow fire, not unlike a cigar. Speaking of cigars, the scene revealing the “Anna Karenina” model is brilliant. As each takes their turn taking a taste we sense their interior world by the way the smoke leaves their mouths. Garfinkel uses the corners well pulling our attention into these small spaces for intimate moments.
Jeffrey S. Lane cleverly transforms the cozy space at Main Street Theater into a cigar factory complete with actual tobacco rolling stations, offstage chicken fights, and palpable sense of street life outside. The audience feels the Miami heat and smells the rich cigar aroma wafting in the air. Throw in a little Tolstoy in the mix and you have one strong play.