In promoting Anna in the Tropics, the Jungle Theater has made much of the play’s Florida setting, a chance to make a virtual escape from Minnesota winter. The warmth that matters in this production, though, isn’t the weather; it’s the affectionate relationships among the members of a loving family.
Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning 2002 play is set in the Tampa cigar industry circa the 1920s. Santiago (Al Clemente Saks), his wife Ofelia (Adlyn Carreras), and his brother Cheché (Dario Tangelson) run a factory where cigars are hand-rolled — by hands including those of Santiago’s daughters Conchita (Nora Montañez) and Marela (Cristina Florencia Castro), along with Conchita’s husband, Palomo (Rich Remedios).
As was common at the time, the laborers hire a lector to read aloud for entertainment while they work. The dashing young Juan Julian (Juan Rivera Lebron) hops off the boat from Cuba with a copy of Anna Karenina, and intense swooning results. Over the course of the play, Tolstoy’s story of star-crossed love affairs starts to hit a little close to home despite its vastly different locale.
The strength of director Larissa Kokernot’s production is in its patient, tender evocation of a time and place where great novels were savored as deliberately as fine cigars. Andrea Heilman’s elegant set surrounds the characters in rows of book pages mounted as louvers that occasionally tilt open to suggest winds of change blowing through the factory.
Cruz is wont to detour from plain-spoken dialogue into lyrical flights of metaphor, and making those tonal shifts flow smoothly is a challenge for any production. In that respect, Kokernot and her cast struggle: Tangelson succeeds in a weary monologue about his failed marriage, but Castro veers wildly between antic enthusiasm (at one point she literally wets herself with excitement) and the suddenly subtle articulation of complex emotions.
Castro does, however, find a genuine erotic heat in her flirtation with the lector — more than Lebron and Montañez manage to generate in their ostensibly passionate after-hours coupling. Kokernot’s slow-burning approach to this material does pay off in those scenes, as does the intimacy of the Jungle stage: We can feel the tension building as the actors’ bodies draw near, and every touch becomes significant.
The affectionate coziness of this family factory also helps to make Cruz’s case for the virtues of a slower, more thoughtful approach to life. As the testy Cheché pushes for automation, Santiago stands firm in his resolve to maintain the traditional production methods, confident that good things come to those who wait.
Despite a scene of sweaty coitus, the most satisfying climax in this production comes when one of the factory’s cigars is finally lit and we watch each member of the family savor a puff of their product. As the smoke wafts out into the audience, it’s clear that this is one production where a simulated cigar just wouldn’t do. What’s the point of life, Santiago might ask, if you don’t make it worth living?
Anna in the Tropics
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-822-7063; through March 12