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Passion, enchantment bring heat to 'Tropics'

In its New England premiere, ''Anna in the Tropics" receives a solid production from the Speakeasy Stage Company that highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of this sometimes lyrical, sometimes clunky play. You come away understanding why it won Nilo Cruz the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but also wondering how so gifted a playwright could let his soaring poetry get chained down with awkward chunks of exposition and creaking turns of plot.

The story opens with the arrival in a 1920s Florida cigar factory of a new ''lector," a reader hired by the Cuban-American workers to divert them with literature as they roll cigars by hand. Cruz uses this rich tradition, which died out once machines replaced human hands, as a powerful metaphor for the ways in which art can transform our lives. So the lector, Juan Julian, is a crucial role, and Liam Torres executes it with grace, poise, and a quiet but inexorable charm. Torres, like Juan Julian, understands that fiction is a form of magic, and he brings his listeners both onstage and in the audience under its spell.

As Conchita, a yearning and lonely worker who responds passionately to that spell, Melinda Lopez casts her own kind of enchantment. Lopez starts quietly, with a masked sadness that slowly, devastatingly builds through heartbreak and beyond. In her scenes both with Torres and with Diego Arciniegas, who gives a nuanced and powerful performance as the husband who has bruised but not lost her heart, Lopez uses every subtlety of voice and gesture to weave an unforgettable character of gossamer and steel.

In the interactions of these three characters -- which echo but do not imitate the story Juan Julian has elected to read, Tolstoy's ''Anna Karenina" -- Cruz's poetry feels at once strange and true. You know real people don't talk quite like this, and yet, as with Tennessee Williams (to whom Cruz has been compared), you accept their lyricism as a kind of costume, a self-conscious bit of stagecraft that reveals a deeper truth.

With some of the other characters, though, it's a little harder to swallow the mix. Conchita's sister, Marela, blends naivete and eloquence in a way that strains credulity; even if newcomer Angela Sperazza toned down the girlish exuberance, Marela would still be more of a contrivance than a character. The seams between naturalism and lyricism also show in Cruz's matriarch Ofelia and bad uncle Cheché, although Bobbie Steinbach and Robert Saoud turn in strong performances, as does Dick Santos as Ofelia's husband.

Amanda Mujica contributes some lovely costumes -- especially the lector's dashing suit -- and Susan Zeeman Rogers's set gives us everything but the smell of the cigars. But that very realism sometimes causes a problem: Scenes set outdoors or in other rooms are played at the edges of that same set, which can feel either awkward or confusing.

Perhaps director Daniel Jáquez could have found smoother transitions from place to place. But he still would have been left with the difficulties of helping the actors make bigger transitions, those between the mundane and magical passages of the script. Though Cruz makes these leaps often, we're not always persuaded to leap with him. And that's a pity, because the leaps that do work make us long to soar again.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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