BWW Review: Loyalties Tested in BECOMING CUBA at Huntington Theatre Company
Written by Melinda Lopez, Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; Scenic Design, Cameron Anderson; Costume Design, Andrea Hood; Lighting Design, Yi Zhao; Sound Design & Composition, Arshan Gailus; Production Stage Manager, Carola Morrone LaCoste; Stage Manager, Candice D. Mongellow
Huntington Theatre Company playwright-in-residence Melinda Lopez collaborates with Huntington Associate Producer M. Bevin O'Gara, making her Huntington directorial debut, to bring her latest drama Becoming Cuba to the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Set in Havana in 1897 in the midst of the bloody Cuban War of Independence, the story chronicles the fighting between the native rebels and the Spanish army, as well as the clash within one family with divided loyalties. Rich in historical content, it is saved from being didactic by the sincerity of its characters pursuing their destinies, always driven by deep, familial love and love of country.
Becoming Cuba is beautifully written and features fully-realized performances, as well as evocative design elements. We can almost feel the steamy air under the lights of designer Yi Zhao, and Arshan Gailus provides Spanish guitar music that might induce us to sway just a bit. Cameron Anderson designed the pharmacy and soda fountain where the protagonist Adela (a compelling Christina Pumariega) plies her trade, its walls of shelves filled with bottles, and lotions, and potions. Aided by her younger sister Martina (feisty Rebecca Soler), Adela labors to keep the shop going as her Spaniard husband's legacy after losing him to the war a year earlier. In fact, she clings to it as a safe haven from the reality of the turmoil rapidly closing in on Havana from the countryside.
Serving the needs of the aristocrats, Adela stays connected to the people in charge. One of her few customers is Fancy, the wife of the Spanish lieutenant who is second in command to the general they call The Butcher. Marianna Bassham brings a manic, yet fragile quality to this highbrow fish out of water who craves the warmth and professional attention of Adela as an antidote to the uncaring brutishness of her husband, chillingly portrayed by Christopher Burns. However, try as she might to ignore it, the insurgence arrives on Adela's doorstep in the person of her half-brother Manny (Juan Javier Cardenas), a rebel fighter who tries to recruit her to the cause. Martina is more simpatico, but Adela remains planted on the opposite side of the conflict, only agreeing to provide Manny with supplies, but not her services. However, his presence sets in motion a chain of events which ultimately requires Adela to choose between loyalty to country or to family.
Lopez introduces Richard Davis (Christopher Tarjan), an American journalist, into the mix to serve as a voice for the encroaching American involvement into the war, as well as a love interest for Adela. She does not return his ardor, holding fast to the memory of her husband, but Pumariega shows that she is at least flattered by the attention. There is also young Chucho (Brandon Barbosa) who represents so many street urchins whose lives are upended as collateral damage. Although he is a pesky presence in the shop, the adults have protective feelings for him and look out for his well-being in the end.
Prior to Manny's arrival, daily life in the pharmacy sees Adela ministering to her customers, mothering Martina, and doing her best to procure sufficient amounts of stock items. Everything is thrown off kilter when he appears - wounded, dirty, and demanding. Whenever the electrifying Cardenas is onstage, the tension is palpable, building gradually until we know that something bad is bound to happen. When everyone but Adela goes to a baseball game between the Cubans and the Spaniards, the pace picks up markedly and there can be no further equivocating about choosing sides.
O'Gara's direction is impeccable and it doesn't hurt that she has been involved in the project with Lopez for about two years. She takes the serious aspects of the play seriously, but captures the inherent humor, as well. As much as Becoming Cuba tells the history of a war and a country's fight for independence, it is the story of a family's interdependence at its heart, and this play has a big heart.