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Acting Students Infuse Pulitzer Prize-winning Play, 'Anna in the Tropics,' with Elegance

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The cast of “Anna in the Tropics.” Photo by James Beach.

The power of literature should never be taken lightly. Especially when it involves matters of the heart.

Earlier this month, students from the Academy of Art University’s School of Acting stepped into the roles of a varied set of characters in Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna in the Tropics. They revealed a profusion of emotional vulnerability, all sparked by a story. But not just any story. One of the most enduring love stories of all time, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Read aloud by a “lector” (a figure who traditionally read to cigar factory workers while they rolled tobacco), the novel inspires longing, lusting and adulterous liaisons among the characters—some eye-opening, others tragic.

With minimal accoutrements, director Mark Rafael, stage manager Alyssa Mattchen, set and prop designer Karina Munoz and costume designer Chantrelle Grover transformed a barebones stage at 466 Townsend into a steamy, family-run, Florida cigar factory. Simple wooden cigar rollers’ desks and period costumes just right for summer living in the American south in 1929, helped set the scene. But it was the acting that really brought the story to life, transporting the audience back to a time when the winds of industrial change blew strong, and the slow, contemplative lifestyle that called for leisurely moments puffing cigars were beginning to be overthrown by the fast pace of machinery and the quick fix of a cigarette.

The most compelling performances came from Manuel Cruz as the patriarch Santiago, and Katie Meehan as the matriarch Ofelia. Santiago, a factory owner with a penchant for gambling had a multifaceted personality that went from drunk, to weepy, to proud, to buoyant as the play progressed. Cruz catapulted between emotions with ease, shedding tears during a soul-baring conversation with his wife and offering a believable portrait of a man who truly wants to get his life and his business back in order.

Meehan’s Ofelia was a gentle wife and mother, graceful in every way—and strong. She’s a stalwart for tradition and does whatever she can to uphold the customs she remembers from her childhood in Cuba. Ofelia is a sophisticated lady who likes to have fun, and Meehan conveyed this with flair, (“I feel like dancing!”)

Other complexities of this varied cast emerged over the course of the two-hour play, with the daughters, Conchita and Marela getting swept away by the Tolstoy tale. Played by Adela Fornés, Conchita partakes in several intimate conversations that display the playwright’s penchant for poetics. Some transpire with her seemingly innocent, but unfaithful husband Palomo, played by Efrem Whitaker II, while others involve coy flirtations with the sensitive heartthrob lector Juan Julian, played by Samuel Prince.

The younger sister Marela is a whiny, lovelorn girl played with spunk by Adianez Crespo. She’s enraptured by the lector and the book, and when her father asks her to pose for the label of a new cigar named “Anna Karenina,” she squeals with joy and wears the fur-trimmed coat he bought for her for the duration of the play, essentially morphing into her naïve image of the novel’s heroine. But Marela’s exuberant innocence is eventually snuffed out by her uncle, who in his own sad tale lost his wife to the last lector. Played with a spot-on creepiness by Jacob Fuentes Navarro, Cheché’s disgust for the lector, his love stories, and the girls’ lovesick sighs ultimately leads to the play’s heartbreaking finale.

With its small but diverse range of characters, Anna in the Tropics offers many opportunities for the exploration and realization of a variety of emotions, and the students in the School of Acting’s M.F.A. program pulled it off with elegance.