The Phantom Tolstoy: Anna Kareninas melodrama doesn't work in Prohibition Miami.s melodrama doesnt work in Prohibition Miami.t work in Prohibition Miami.
The Phantom Tolstoy: Anna Kareninas melodrama doesn't work in Prohibition Miami.s melodrama doesnt work in Prohibition Miami.t work in Prohibition Miami.

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

Anna in the Tropics, Nilo Cruz’s familial tragedy set in a Florida cigar factory, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its poetic language and historical relevance, not its romance-novel plot. All the wit and gorgeous turns of phrase are intact in this new Spanish-language version, whether you’re able to understand the actors’ banter or are following along via subtitles. (Cruz’s original English is projected above the stage.)

Likewise, no Spanish skills are required to appreciate the well-calibrated cast of seven Cuban immigrants rolling tobacco by day and drinking rum by night in the era of Prohibition. They relish life and love, unrequited or reciprocated. When the bell rings one afternoon at the small factory in Tampa, family matriarch Ofelia (the staunch but likeable Marian Licha) remarks that she’s rolled more than 500 cigars in one day. Her wide-eyed daughter, Marela (an adorable Monalisa Arias), isn’t keeping track.

“And I’ve wedded more than a thousand,” she says, dreamily. “That’s what I like about putting the bands around the cigars. It’s like marrying all these men without actually seeing them.”

“Men marry their cigars, my dear,” her mother chastens. “And the white smoke becomes the veil of their brides.”

If these ladies sound pretty literary for factory workers, that’s because Cruz is presenting a pretty unique slice-of-immigrant-life story. It’s 1929, and the Cuban-style cigar business is just past its peak. We get the impression this family ran a pretty prosperous business in Havana. But gambling debts are catching up with the factory owner, Santiago, and his brother is threatening to replace workers with machines. Feeling stubborn and nostalgic, Ofelia uses her own money to hire a new “lector,” a professional deep-voiced Latin-lover type who reads aloud from novels while the workers stuff tobacco. “Some of us cigar workers might not be able to read or write,” she says, “but we can recite lines from Don Quixote or Jane Eyre.”

The dashing new lector’s first choice: Anna Karenina.

Soon the characters are discussing Tolstoy’s novel as if holding a mirror up to their own lives. Some similarities come across as too convenient. Elder daughter Conchita accuses her husband of “taking a lover” in one scene and passionately kisses the lector in the next. Santiago justifies his stubbornness by revering Levin’s self-reliance. So: Imposing cultural mores from one continent on another? It’s certainly worked onstage before, but here, all the cute, melodramatic coincidence comes at the cost some period authenticity. These Cuban-Americans should be better than Tolstoy’s bourgeois Russians at coping with tragedy.

And the second act is packed with tragedy. It’s worth noting that another play involving rape, Signature’s world premiere of Really Really, also opened last weekend. (See review on page 28.) In Anna, the onstage rape is never discussed. A man abandoned by his wife is laughed offstage. A murder is marked by single white rose.

For audience members with half a heart, these situations should evoke complex, visceral reactions. That’s why it’s so disturbing to see characters grin and bear it with a choice rhyme or platitude. As a poetic tribute to one Cuban family’s American dream—beautifully designed and smoothly directed—the play is stunning. As a realistic period piece that glosses over serious familial problems, even a solid production of Anna feels emotionally stunted.