Dreaming in Cuban
Breaking boundaries of time, distance, and reality, a swirl of memories, dreams, and harsh realities both clash in conflict and dance in harmony in Cristina Garcia’s beautifully and imaginatively conceived Dreaming in Cuban, now in world premiere at Berkeley’s Central Works. Adapting to the stage her 1992, National Book Award finalist novel by the same title, Cristina Garcia explores the heart-breaking effects that political and ideological divisions can have on families – differences that lead to some beginning lives anew in exile and some remaining behind solid in their support of a never-ending revolution.
While the gripping and sometimes surreal story is intimately connected to three generations of one family, their experiences as Cubans speak for tens of thousands more like them with family members on opposite shores only ninety miles apart bitterly divided by those supporting and opposed to El Lider. Further, Dreaming in Cuban reflects the experiences of millions more worldwide for whom the deeply felt divisiveness of politics and the subsequent impacts for those in exile and those left behind result in ruptured family relationships. While Cristina Garcia’s setting is 1979-80, the scenes we watch could hardly feel more current than they do for our world of 2022 where divisions within families and friends over politics seem to multiply at a frightening rate on a daily basis.
From her beloved seaside abode in Cuba, Celia del Pino is an aging but acutely alert matriarch and widow who is firm in her desire “to be remembered as a revolutionary.” Her two grown daughters – Felicia and Lourdes – do not share her devotion to La Revolución, with Lourdes now living with her late-teen daughter, Pilar, in Brooklyn where she owns the successful Yankee Doodle Bakery and with Felicia and her eleven-year-old son, Ivanito, still in Cuba. Lourdes is staunchly proud of her American citizenship and acerbically angry with her mother for not allowing Felicia to come with her years ago to the U.S. Felicia too harbors resentment against a mother who has sent her to ‘remedial education’ camps to try and instill devotion to the ideals her mother so bases her entire life.
For their part, the grandchildren are both drawn to their abuela – a grandmother who encourages young and affectionate Ivanito to learn Russian and to read books like “The Adventures of Vladimir the Cosmonaut.” With Pilar, there is such a deep connection with the granddaughter she has not seen since Pilar was two that the two magically communicate across time and distance without any means other than the connection of their two hearts.
With waist-length, braided strands of gray hair and wearing a loose-fitting, white house dress, there is often something otherworldly about Mary Ann Rogers’ portrayal of Celia. As she talks across time and space to an unseen Pilar, her eyes bulge in rounded form, staring intensely to a vacant distance but clearly seeing in her mind’s eyes the adoring granddaughter who feels a draw to return to Cuba and to her abuela. But when her recently deceased husband, Jorge, returns to seek a reassurance of love that he did not feel from her when alive, she acrimoniously looks the other direction from the specter before spitting out, “Don’t mi amor me.”
Mary Ann Rogers brings many complex and conveying layers to this woman who is a soldier at heart for the cause of revolution but who also has longingly mourned for decades a lost love who left her to return to a wife in Spain – a man she wrote many letters but never sent, letters she now reads to the unseen, non-present Pilar. It was this love that made her own husband harshly jealous during his life, leading him to plead with her unrelently self, “Can’t you love me just a bit now that I am dead?”
Steve Ortiz is other-worldly as the spirit of Jorge del Pino who roams in and out of the lives of his family, seeking at times resolution to regrets of the past while at other times desperately trying to convey messages that may or may not find listening hearts. His Jorge finds a hospitable host for his hauntings in the presence of his loving daughter, Lourdes.
As Lourdes, Anna Maria Luera clearly longs for the parental connection she had for her dad but seems to have no place in her heart for a mother she sees as ruining the life of her sister, Felicia, and as caring more for El Lider than for her husband or daughters. One can almost see fire emitting from the eyes of her Lourdes when she speaks with cutting bitterness about the politics of her mother. But that same fire also lights up with bright flames when she refers to her patriotic love for her adopted country.
Lourdes also flares quickly into expressions of mixed frustration and fury when Pilar shrugs off her attempts to be motherly or stomps off when her mother demands more respect and obedience from a girl who is doing what teens do, rebelling against mom. Thea Rodgers typifies a teen who is so wound up with all the conflicting desires and emotions boiling inside that she can erupt with vitriol directed at her mom one moment and can the next just become like a silent log, refusing to respond to her mother’s entreaties of requests or even of affection. At the same time, she transforms into a delightful, inquisitive, and totally interesting person when conversing in her mind with her absent abuela or into an awkward but attractive new entity when she meets Max, the guitar-playing guy her mom has hired for the bakery. But what is driving her Pilar the most is the magnetic pull of Cuba, and to that end the young woman means to find some way to return.
Her new love, Max, is an easy-going, congenial musician who sports long curly hair and clear eyes of immediate attraction for Pilar. As Max, Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez repeatedly in just minutes undergoes changes of hair, costume, personality, and age as he also plays the shy, lovable, eleven-year-old Ivanito who finds himself caught in the uncomfortable middle between the teachings of his beloved abuela and the unhappiness but loving outreaches of his mother, Felicia.
Feeling entrapped in a life where she is clearly not happy in Cuba, Natalia Delgado’s Felicia brings some of the eerie, lost-soul aspects also seen in her father’s ghostly figure. Voices come to her, like that of her father telling her she was cursed at birth. She endures the ranting commands of Lt. Reyes (also played by Steve Ortiz) as he tries with fists and fury to indoctrinate revolutionary zeal into her at the remedial, militia camp her mother sends her. Her Felicia never quite seems fully present in this world except in occasional, shouting confrontations with a mother who sees her as a “malcontent” and who makes her feel like a “pariah.” Before a lit candle and with her son kneeling beside her, Felicia prays to some unknown source, “My son and I do not belong her; help me to find a lasting peace.” Natalia Delgado is nothing short of exceptional as the troubled and unsettled Felicia.
When a sudden death in the family occurs in Cuba, Lourdes remembers her father’s earlier ghostly urge to return to Cuba where there are “things you must do, things you will only know when you get there.” To Pilar’s surprise, to Cuba they go where reception for Lourdes is chilly at best and for Pilar, a loving continuation of a bond with her abuela that can finally be in person. Divisions of politics run up against faint but still present pulls of familial love as secrets, hurts, and losses of the past begin to reappear unexpectedly. Revelations lead to outcomes unexpected and to a story line that causes us as audience to lean in and hardly breathe in order not to miss one word of a script so masterfully written and performed by a cast to a person superb.
In Central Works’ intimate setting within the historic Berkeley City Club, Gary Graves directs with uncanny adeptness a flow of scenes that alternate seamlessly between Brooklyn and Cuba and that combine the real and the surreal into a mixture always believable even when we are watching elements fantastical. The aspects of reality are greatly enhanced by the incredibly designed and produced sound elements by Gregory Scharpen, leaving little to our imagination that in one moment we are on an ocean’s sandy shores and that in the next, in the midst of a bustling, city neighborhood. The lighting designed by Gary Graves is particularly effective when we enter the inner longings, thoughts, and dreams of those in our presence while the costumes of Tammy Berlin bring both these spectral entities and real-time personalities into clear definition.
Dreaming in Cuban is yet another in a long line of Central Works world premieres where the story does not end as the lights go up at the end of the production. The characters go home with us to continue conversations in our own thoughts and dreams, promising to remain vivid as our new friends for days to come, bringing in this case new insights into the lives of those among us exiled from their once homes as well as new empathy for those they left behind.
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
Dreaming in Cuban continues in extension through July 31, 2022 in a world premiere production by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are available online at http://centralworks.org .
Photo Credits: Robbie Sweeny