Theater Review / Anna in the Tropics, A Key West story to capture your heart!

By Joanna Brady

For a scintillating look at the early days of Key West, don’t miss Anna in the Tropics, a new offering at the Studios of Key West. This Pulitizer prize winning drama by Cuban-American playwright, Nilo Cruz, is a winner in every respect. 

Many people here, myself included, own a print of “The Reader and the Cigar Makers,”* an intaglio (wood cut) by the much-acclaimed Key West artist, Mario Sanchez (1909-2005) The work depicts  the artist’s father reading to factory workers at the Eduard J. Gato Cigar Factory. A common sight in Key West’s prosperous salad days prior to 1931, when a reader would stand before the workers and read to entertain and educate them as they busily hand-rolled cigars. 

It’s the perfect setting for this play. Watching Anna in the Tropics was like seeing people frozen in that scene coming to life, with all the heat, passions, and emotions of real people. The play sizzles with romance, drama, poetry, humor, jealousy, sex, and even murder. Whip up All these highly charged ingredients and you get an entertaining tale to keep the audience riveted to their seats. 

As the play opens, there’s great excitement in the air with the arrival of the dashing new lector, Juan Julian, played by the handsome, Daniel T. Bochlas. Against a background of Hispanic men betting at a cockfight, the new lector disembarks, setting the hearts of a factory owner’s wife and two daughters aflutter.

Juan chooses to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina at the factory, and Anna’s story affects the behavior of all the workers, especially that of the women. Until the surprise ending, the story continues to follow similar story lines to the novel, stimulating all the workers’ passions. Life imitating art.

Mathias Maloff is at his most exuberant as the guy who runs the cockfights, shouting excitedly like a circus barker as he describes the feathered fighters by name and promotes bets (no, the birds are not in evidence!)  He also plays one of the cigar rollers, Palomo. Francesca Silva plays Palomo’s pretty wife (an emerging feminist), who gives as good as she gets when she finds out he has a mistress. Christian Dean Haler is convincing as the loveable but reckless factory owner, Santiago, too fond of rum and gambling at the cockfights—almost to the point of losing the factory to his venal half-brother Cheche. 

Among his other faults, the lecherous Cheche is a money-grubbing modern who would like to take control of the factory, see an end of the lector tradition, and mechanize it so as to crank out industrial cigars.

Mira Negron is great as Ofelia, Santiago’s wife, a loving and gracious community doyenne, yet a pillar of toughness and strength. Nayem Cardenas-Lopez, playing the younger daughter Marela, brings a lot to the production, as does Aramis Ikatu (Cheche). 

That the names of several of the troupe show up in the roster for the artistic crew attests to the many talents of this creative cast, who contribute to the play’s professional stagecraft, like the great set. Brief Hispanic music bites punctuate the play to contribute just the right Latin touch. 

Full disclosure: Nilo Cruz originally set this play in Ybor City (Tampa) during the Prohibition era, and it reflects the mores prevalent in America during that period. It was where the cigar makers moved when they left Key West circa 1931. With the author’s permission, the play has been perfectly adapted to Key West where cigar making really began in the U.S. (At one point in history, Key West was known as the cigar manufacturing capital of the world, producing 100 million hand-rolled cigars each year.)

Anna in the Tropics is co-produced and  expertly directed by Dennis Zacek Artistic Director Emeritus of Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. The play is, in Zacek’s words, “…perfect for Key West audiences; it celebrates the cultural history of Cuban immigrants and an era of tropical nights shrouded in cigar smoke. . . and thanks to the diversity of the Key West acting community, we’re delighted that our production features a remarkably talented, and predominantly Latino cast.”

See this play for a peek at life in our early days. Yet another colorful layer of the onion we call Key West!

 Anna in the Tropics opens February 19 at The Studios of Key West’s Helmerich Theater, 533 Eaton Street, and runs Wednesdays-Saturdays, February 19-February 29 and

Wednesday through Saturday nights Feb. 26 through Feb. 29, with all shows at 8pm. Play is 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission. Tickets can be purchased at tskw.org or by calling 305-296-0458. Discounted tickets are available for teachers and special interest groups by contacting Elena Devers at elena@tskw.org.

* (Mario Sanchez’ original work hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)
(Joanna Brady is a local writer, author of the historical Key West novel, The Woman at the Light, published by St. Martin’s Press)