Review: Tolstoy in a Cigar Factory—The Sensual Story of Anna in the Tropics by Remy Bumppo Theatre

Desire is a theme of Anna in the Tropics, the so-very-sensual play that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for playwright Nilo Cruz. The new production by Remy Bumppo Theatre, directed by Laura Alcalá Baker, plays with many levels of desire in staging this beautiful tragedy of workers in a cigar factory and the story of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

The play is set in Ybor City, part of Tampa, Florida, and a center of cigar-making in 1929. It was a time when “lectors” were hired to read stories—often great literature—to cigar-makers as they worked to keep them happily working as well as educating them to the wider world. 

As the play opens, a new lector is arriving from “the island.” Ofelia (Charín Álvarez), the cigar roller who has hired him, waits at the dock with her daughters, Marela (Alix Rhode) and Conchita (Krystal Ortiz). They are excited to meet Juan Julian (Arash Fakhrabadi), who arrives with his books, ready to become part of the community. 

Throughout this scene, cockfights are being conducted with vigorous betting. Santiago (Dano Duran), the cigar factory owner and Ofelia’s husband, has lost his money and wants to borrow some from Cheché (Eduardo Xavier), who has been winning. Santiago signs for his loan by writing a contract on the sole of Cheché’s shoe. Their agreement is that if Santiago doesn’t repay the loan, Cheché will own a share of the cigar factory. 

 Arash Fakhrabadi, Roberto Mántica, Alix Rhode, Krystal Ortiz, Jalbelly Guzmán, Jonathan Olivares, and Tina Muñoz Pandya. Photo by Nomee Photography.

The next day, the lector arrives at the factory and begins to read the first book: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The workers enjoy the reading and their own discussions of the story afterwards. Gradually, the sad romantic arc of socialite Anna, her older husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky begins to permeate the lives of the workers. In several scenes between couples, the legend of Anna becomes enmeshed in their own stories. 

Conchita says to her husband Palomo (Roberto Mantica), “Anna reminds me of us.” She chides Palomo for having a lover and suggests she might do the same. 

In a later scene, Santiago, sad because he has not been able to repay Cheché, talks with Ofelia about the Tolstoy character Levin, who lives only to love Kitty, who loves Vronsky, who loves Anna …. “For Levin, there’s only one woman,” Santiago says, and asks Ofelia if he has lost her because of his gambling and drinking. Ofelia gives him a big encouraging hug.

The romantic story of Anna affects the lector too. He and Conchita are drawn to each other and in a vividly sensual scene, admit their love. 

“Why did you choose to read Tolstoy?” Conchita asks Juan Julian. “Because Tolstoy understands humanity like no other writer does,” he replies.

Charín Álvarez and Dano Duran. Photo by Nomee Photography.

Director Baker’s cast is uniformly strong, from smaller parts such as Jonathan Moises Olivares  as Eliades, the cockfight official, to Ortiz and Fakhrabadi as Conchita and the lector. Charín Álvarez is, as always, nuanced and powerful—sweet and strong­—in her performance. 

The staging is simple and effective; Baker’s blocking creates individual scenes of intimacy, couple by couple, as well as scenes of work, celebration and sadness. The effective set design by Lauren M. Nichols involves quick furniture movement to convert the factory floor to other settings. Lighting is by Claire Sangster. Sound design is by Peter Clare, with music direction by J. Sebastian Fabal. Costumes by Gregory Graham carefully represent the well-dressed style of the workers; they wear soft fabric costumes, including guayaberas, in whites and beiges, 

Playwright Cruz, who arrived in South Florida at the age of 10 on a ”freedom flight” from Cuba, is known for his lyrical texts and the simmering desire expressed in his plays; some of his characters seem as parched for love as they might be for water. He has written 15 plays including A Bicycle Country and Two Sisters and a PianoAnna in the Tropics premiered at the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, and was staged on Broadway in late 2003, directed by Emily Mann, with Jimmy Smits playing Juan Julian, the lector. The playwright notes that Anna in the Tropics takes place near the end of an era. By 1931, lectors were no longer employed to read to workers and the era of hand-rolled cigars had ended too. By this time, cigars were made by machines operated by low-paid American workers.  

Anna in the Tropics by Remy Bumppo Theatre Company continues through March 19 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets are $10-$50 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Wearing a mask is required inside the theater.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.