‘Becoming Cuba’ loses focus in the second act
BOSTON — The Huntington Theatre Company has certainly put its money where its mouth is in supporting and presenting the work of a whole cadre of young playwrights.
including Melinda Lopez, Kirsten Greenidge, Lydia Diamond, Ryan Landry and Ronan Noone.
More often than not, the theater and its patrons has been richly rewarded, and among the rewards has been Lopez’s award-winning “Sonia Flew,” which has been produced at many venues around the country.
She has since written other works, but has finally returned to the Huntington with the New England premiere of “Becoming Cuba.”
While “Sonia” was a more personal work, “Becoming Cuba” is a lot of different things: a history lesson, at times a love story, often a commentary on the evils of expansionism in all of its forms and the rights of the oppressed to throw off their shackles.
With so much on its plate, it’s not surprising that not all of the elements work all the time, and the second act needs some reworking.
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban War of Independence in 1897, a 35-year-old widow named Adela Fidelidad (a name that rings true in this case — in English it means faithfulness or loyalty) — has isolated herself in her Havana pharmacy as chaos reigns outside.
It is months before the explosion of the USS Maine and the beginning of the Spanish-American War, and danger is in the air. Rebels have just blown up a key bridge outside Havana.
Adela (Christina Pumariega) is a woman in turmoil, trying to stay true to herself and the memory of both her dead husband, a Spanish loyalist wrongly killed in the war, as well as her own Cuban people.
She dispenses what drugs she has that have made it through the blockade and haven’t been stolen. Adela is assisted by a younger sister — Rebecca Soler as the saucy, sassy Martina, full of herself and full of life, not yet ground down by the vagaries of war.
Their world is turned upside-down arrival of her half-brother Manny (a passionate, powerful Juan Javier Cardenas), a member of the rebel army who brings the conflict inside the door of the pharmacy .
He comes with a plea: stop straddling the fence and join the cause he and their father have embraced, and run the rebels’ field hospital.
Lopez’s history lesson isn’t letting America off the hook. The Cuban people are exploited, oppressed and desperate for freedom, but their pleas for help from the U.S. largely go unanswered But the eventual U.S. involvement will also have a cost: expansionism of a different kind, with Spain exiting and America finding its own interests in the island 90 miles from the U.S. mainland.
The U.S. is represented here by Christopher Tarjan as Davis, the intense if war-weary American journalist who will eventually prove a love interest, but the scenes with he and Adela and don’t ring true, and the whole subplot ends up being more of a distraction to the main question: Which way will Adela go?
There is some strong support from Christopher Burns as the Conquistador who offers cheeky remarks at different points in the production as well as the corrupt, brutal, cruel Spanish lieutenant who threatens Adela, and Marianna Bassham as his wife, whose illness will become another subplot.
“Becopming Cuba” is not as fully realized as Lopez’s award-winning “Sonia Flew,” which seems to have flowed fully formed from her psyche.
The second act loses focus at times in the worlds of baseball and bullfighting, but the ending does provide for some redemption.
Director M. Bevin-O’Gara helmed Speakeasy Stage Company’s award-winning production of “Tribes” last fall and she also directed Lopez’s “Gary” at Boston Playwrights Theatre, and she appears to be on the same page as the playwright in bringing Lopez’s vision to the stage.
There’s a lot to work with here. Some second-act tweaking and “Becoming Cuba” may achieve the same lasting success as “Sonia Flew.”
The Huntington Theatre Company‘s production of “Becoming Cuba,” by Melinda Lopez. Directed M. Bevin O’Gara. Other Credits: Set, Cameron Anderson. Costumes, Andrea Hood. Lights, Yi Zhao, Sound design and composition, Arshan Gailus At the Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. http://www.huntingtontheatre.org