Credit: Stan Weinstein

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Grieving can be like dating, in that both processes consist of different stages. There is the initial shock, the rush of emotions from infatuation or loss. There is the deepening obsession, the singular focus on one person crowding out all other thoughts. There is the idealization, placing the loved one on a pedestal. Then there is the reflection, the realization that the person is, or was, a human being, as complex and flawed as all of us. And ultimately, it is hoped, there is a return to equilibrium that points us to a clearer path forward.

This process can be complicated by the fact that, in grief, the object of affection is not around to respond. It allows memories to shift dramatically along with emotions. The HBO series Six Feet Under illustrated this with the periodic appearance of the ghost of Nathaniel Fisher, who dies in the first episode, to his widowed wife and children. Depending on who he was talking to and when, he could be loving, hectoring, sage, or a homicidal gun-toting maniac.

Exquisite Agony, a play by Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz now on stage at GALA Hispanic Theatre, takes a more static approach, in which another patriarch, Lorenzo, looms over the entire play as a larger-than-life portrait looking down at his surviving family on stage. At times it can seem comforting, at other times menacing. Lorenzo’s portrait is sometimes obscured by sliding doors his wife occasionally closes on him, but they always reopen. This leaves his memory to be debated and acted out by those he left behind.

This burden is taken on almost entirely by his widow, Millie (Luz Nicolás), a retired Spanish opera singer in Florida, who overcompensates for the apparent indifference of her son and daughter. As the portrait reminds us, she can’t let go, and this motivates her unhealthy pursuit of another living reminder of her late husband. Lorenzo, it turns out, was an organ donor, and his heart went to a Cuban immigrant, Amér (Joel Hernández Lara), whom she tracks down, against the advice of the surgeon who did the transplant, Dr. Castillo (Ariel Texidó). An extended courtship commences, with Millie pursuing Amér aggressively: first by mail and eventually in person. Amér has misgivings, which we learn are very well founded, as his willingness to meet lands him and his protective brother in the middle of a tumultuous family drama into which they’ve been forcibly conscripted. 

Like the grieving process, Cruz’s play morphs and moves in unexpected ways. It’s a melodrama, but one that portrays the stages of grief as not just a process but as an adventure. At times it is deeply sad and reflective, at others exhilarating, and in the second act, it becomes another play entirely. Cruz’s dialogue is lush and poetic—everyone, even the doctor, speaks in metaphors and goes on long philosophical soliloquies about things like cellular memory that would sound clunky in less capable hands. But the production is grounded by the excellent Nicolás, a GALA company regular who often takes on the most emotionally wrought roles and projects them through her whole body. Her Millie is an unstoppable force who masks her conflicted memories of her husband with explosive declarations of devotion and pain, twisting her very body into a pretzel.

The acting is solid all around, with Lara and Texidó, two Cuban actors new to GALA, giving life to the shy and sympathetic Amér and the chatty, love drunk (or simply drunk) Doctor Castillo. Another company regular, Andrés Talero, gives a standout performance as Millie’s son Tommy, whose sarcastic attitude comes off as self-centered and petty in the first act, then upends the story entirely in the second.

Exquisite Agony is a breathtaking ride, and GALA’s production is a rare chance to see a work directed by one of the best in the business. Cruz may be a showy wordsmith, and the dialogue can be baroque at times. But above all, he knows how to construct a story, and can lead an audience around by its nose wherever he wants to take it. It can feel perilous at times, like you are being set up for heartbreak, or worse, cliché. But as with grief, sometimes it’s best to simply accept it and go along with it, not knowing where you will end up.

To March 1 at 3333 14th St. NW. $30–$48. (202) 234-7174.

Want a heads up about artsy goings-on?

To Do This Week is your twice-weekly email roundup of arts and cultural events. It’s the perfect way to know what’s going on, and subscribing is a great way to support us