Playwright: Nilo Cruz
At: Victory Gardens, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Phone: (773) 871-3000; $22-$35
Runs through: Oct. 26
The 'Anna' in the title is Anna Karenina, but this is not 19th-century Russia. We are in 1929 Florida, where a small family owned cigar factory has just hired a lector—an industrial employee whose sole job is to read aloud to the workers as they go about the delicate process of rolling tobacco leaves into tight, smooth-surfaced cheroots, coronas and panatelas. The lector's purpose is twofold: to maintain product quality by forestalling the boredom associated with repetitious tasks executed over long hours in sultry climates. And to share with uneducated, often illiterate, laborers the knowledge to be found in newspapers and books. For his first selection, the new reader chooses Tolstoy's romance of a woman torn between her husband and her lover.
Nilo Cruz' play is likewise a love story: need I mention that the lector is young, handsome, virile and urbane? Or that the Santiago factory personnel includes not one, but two women dissatisfied with their husbands, along with a badass whose wife deserted him for—you guessed it—another lector? But the upheaval triggered by the stranger's arrival is not only sexual: the hostile CheChe has been arguing for machines to replace the slower method of hand-rolling each individual cigar—machines whose noise will drown the lector's voice. Santiago's reply is to introduce a new cigar—the 'Anna Karenina,' whose advertising campaign will feature a photograph of his daughter, now enamored of snowy Siberian steppelands.
Victory Gardens didn't know, planning their fall season, that their starting selection would be awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama—but past plays so honored encompass many such microcosmic narratives as this. And while much of Anna In The Tropics could, in clumsier hands than those hired for this production, be reduced to 'hot-blooded Latins' clichés, Cruz' ultimate accomplishment, in addition to celebrating the liberating power of literature, is to paint a poignant picture of a world lost to Progress.
Henry Godinez directs an ensemble of Chicago's foremost Latino actors, delivering performances as sensitively crafted as the Santiago-manufactured cigars—in this universe, paraded as proudly as fine new wines. And Mary Griswold's set evokes a balmy sensuality bound to appeal to audiences as cold weather looms.