FPA's Anna in the Tropics entertains despite procedural flaws

Fifteen years ago, Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics won a Pulitzer Prize in drama partly because of its heavy emotional themes. Director Christopher Scott’s production of the play has strong moments, though much of Cruz’s emotional writing fails to fully take shape.

The story follows Cuban cigar factory workers in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, during the Great Depression. When a charming lector named Juan Julian is hired to read to the workers as they roll cigars, his recitation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has an immense effect on their personal lives, evoking themes of culture, tradition, love and lust that loom over each of them throughout the narrative.

Baruch College's Fine and Performing Arts department, in conjunction with the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, does a solid job of presenting these themes, though one must first move past technical and procedural shortcomings to appreciate them.

Greg Paul’s set design creates an imaginative and authentic sense of home, while Eric Norbury’s lighting design works to point the audience’s attention in the right direction. Ambient sounds and music often came off as distractingly weak, though the costumes designed by Daryl Stone are simple, yet highly effective in keeping the audience in the setting of late 1920s Ybor City.

As Act 1 opens with factory owner Santiago and his brother Che Che gambling, Zalmy Okunov and José Ayala, respectively, do a good job of introducing the audience to their characters, demonstrating strong chemistry through well-animated dialogue and movement.

At the same time, Santiago’s wife, Ofelia, played by Juliana Medeiros, awaits the arrival of the factory’s new lector with her daughters Marela and Conchita — played by Sidney Marie and Jenna Smith, respectively. Bruce Jimenez’s entrance as Juan Julian creates a group dynamic that develops well as the story progresses, though it is mildly disappointing that the four characters do not open with interactions as convincing as they later become.

Certain actors begin with entrances that seem unrefined, though they greatly improve throughout the performance, while others have rough starts that stay rough. Emotionally driven dialogues are often strong, such as those led by Conchita with her husband Palomo — played by Malik Bellamy — and Juan Julian. However, as more characters appear in scenes, the interactions between them become unwieldy and frighteningly delicate where they should seem solid, such as during heated arguments among all of the workers.

Cruz’s script leaves a great deal of room for character development, and the cast in this production takes advantage of the opportunities fairly well with few faults. Marela’s attitude goes from blissfully childlike early in the play to aggressively ditzy, to soberingly intellectual in a sequence of character developments that Marie executes well, even as they do not fully align with plot movements. Juan Julian is described as a smooth lector who captivates the hearts of the women rolling cigars. While he certainly captures their affection, he does so in a way that occasionally appears more dramatized and animated than seems justified for the character.

More than occasionally, lines come out only after moments of noticeable hesitation and sometimes completely shift the mood of the scene. Somber, slow-paced moments rarely feel somber, though they certainly feel slow, so much so that some of them are uncomfortable to sit through. It is easy to be distracted by the sweltering heat of the theater or the noise of the streets outside, a testament to the inability of the performers to create a captivating atmosphere.

Inconsistency seems to be a central theme of this production. Some characters are involved in relationships in which their chemistry is nearly tangible, while in others, it is difficult to find. More than once, a scene’s climax seems to nearly slip away, unacknowledged by the audience, though some scenes evoke clear responses from the audience, as they should.

Although a small cast demands strong performances across the board, Okunov as Santiago comes through as the clear shining star, in a performance somewhat plagued by nearly forgotten lines and lacking group dynamics. While most dialogues between characters are quite strong, scenes with more than three characters tend to fall apart and prove unable to effectively hold down emotions where they are needed most.

The play’s climax in act two is followed by a silence that, in the words of Ofelia, should be deafening, though, instead, it feels empty. While it is clear that there is no happy ending in sight for the play, it seems as though there is no complete resolution at all in sight. Despite its shortcomings, Scott’s Anna in the Tropics provides an entertaining amalgamation of heavy and emotional themes.