The romance of literature is at the forefront of playwright Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics. In a smoldering Florida cigar factory circa 1929, newly arrived lector Juan Julian (Erik Martin) disturbs the tenuous status quo when he chooses Anna Karenina as the first book he will read aloud to the workers. Soon the goings-on in the tragic Russian classic bring long-simmering conflicts to a boil, in particular for the Cuban-American family that owns the factory.
Under the capable tutelage of director Art DeConciliis, this Little Lake Theatre production boasts a strong ensemble that buoys the show through the quiet and the explosive moments — and Anna in the Tropics brims with almost as many heartfelt speeches as it does screaming matches. Patricia Cena Fuchel and Marcus Muzopappa deliver show-stopping turns as Ofelia and Santiago, the matriarch and patriarch of the family that is splintering under the strain of infidelity, gambling and in-fighting, as well as the progress of an ever-modernizing world.
However, the hearts of this show are Kaitlin Kerr and Elizabeth Glyptis as sisters Conchita and Marela, respectively. Both actresses give poignant performances as they fantasize exciting lives far from the daily slog of factory work. As the drama in Anna Karenina ratchets up, the sisters’ wild dreams seem almost within their reach, if only they could escape the men who are holding them back, which includes Conchita’s faithless husband, Palomo (Daniel Harrold), and family scourge Cheché (Philip Bower), who has his lecherous eye set on his niece Marela.
Cruz’s script, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, oscillates wildly in its poetical language. The actors deliver lines that are by turns beautiful, humorous and even occasionally a bit maudlin. But while there are a number of laugh-aloud moments in the first act, Anna in the Tropics is no lighthearted romp. Before it’s all over, the lives of the workers are ripped apart, and although the tragic conclusion is practically foretold from the start — the story does loosely mirror Tolstoy’s novel, after all — this impressive production with its flawless performances makes the journey well worth it.