Habla español? No? Well then, you may have some difficulty embracing all of the nuances of Charise Castro Smith’s “el Huracán,” which is currently being premiered by Yale Repertory Theatre. However, is the possible language barrier a problem? No, not really, for even when you may not know exactly what is being said, this fine cast of six actors ably conveys the emotions implicit in the dialogue…and non-bi-linguists can rest easy – most of the dialogue is, in fact, in English. After all, you may not understand specifically what a hurricane might be trying to “say” to you, but you get the message: there’s a storm brewing and you’d best prepare for the worst and take cover, and in the play many emotional (and several meteorological) storms assault the lives of the Cuban immigrants and their descendants who have sought, in one way or another, to find shelter on the “high ground.” Save for the conclusion of the play, where there’s an odd musical choice and a somewhat emotionally manipulative tableau vivant, “el Huracán,” is intriguing theater that is quite satisfying on multiple levels.
The play, directed by Laurie Woolery, opens with an elderly woman, Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols), tottering onto the stage. She seems confused, unfocused, but suddenly a wand appears in her hand and its appearance evokes a memory which, with a wave of the wand, she brings to life. What follows is a magic act performed by a younger Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio) and her partner, a young Alonso (Arturo Soria), a man whom she will marry and who will abandon her, forcing her and her daughter, Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras) to leave Cuba to find a new home in Miami, where the real-time elements of the play occur. This opening sequence (supported by a Sinatra vocal) establishes the concept that throughout the play we will be asked to slide back and forth in time, for the older Valeria is battling dementia, and much of what is revealed is presented via her somewhat disjointed “hurricane” of memories.
What Smith is primarily dealing with here is the idea that the sins of the mothers are visited on their daughters, and that those who commit these sins must repent and seek redemption. Thus, in the present day of the play, we are offered a multi-generational saga that includes a memory-challenged grandmother (the older Valeria), the now adult Ximena, her daughter, Miranda (played by Lucio) and, late in the play, Val (Jennifer Parides), Miranda’s daughter, with the ghost of Alonso (Jonathan Nichols) haunting the grandmother’s mind.
The sins? Well, they are, in essence, the stuff that troubles life: the shirking of responsibilities, the harboring of grievances, shielding the young from uncomfortable truths and the inability to get beyond the grief that comes with loss. These themes are presented in a free-floating, at times stream-of-consciousness, structure that demands the audience’s non-stop attention because plot points are not always presented in a linear fashion.
The play is also about the disruptions that often arise to disturb the smooth flow of life, said disruptions taking the form of two hurricanes – Andrew in 1992 and the imagined Penelope in 2019 – that pound Florida. These hurricanes, strikingly captured by scenic designer Gerardo Diaz Sánchez, lighting designer Nic Vincent, sound designer Megumi Katayama and projection designer Yaara Bar, serve metaphorically to punctuate the upheavals in the characters’ lives.
Given that the play covers multiple decades, several of the actors must “age” over the course of the evening, and kudos are due Lucio and Oliveras for accomplishing this “aging” with style, grace and keen perception of how we, over time, often become – or at least evince many of the traits of – our parents. This aging leads to an absolutely wonderful theatrical moment mid-way through the play when Miranda and Ximena, by simply changing costumes and donning wigs, transform themselves (while never leaving the stage) from young daughter and middle-aged mother to a mature woman and a bitter, elderly grandmother who is, herself, starting to lose her mental faculties. But it’s not just the costumes that create the transformation. The two actors modify their body language and their vocal patterns (the tone and timbre of their voices) to enhance and support the transformation and make it all believable. It is, quite simply, worth the price of admission to be able to view this inspired moment.
Keep that moment, and many other fine moments in this memory play, in your mind as you watch the play’s closing scene, because it might engender a few “Say what?” thoughts that shouldn’t darken your overall response to this production. The first “Say what?” thought is brought about when, as the generations gather, we suddenly hear Gene Kelly crooning “Singing in the Rain.” Up until this point, it’s been Sinatra songs, moody and expressive, that have underpinned many of the scenes. To be blunt, to have Kelly’s up-beat embrace of his character’s delight in love and life (after all, he’s got a “smile on his face for the whole human race”) at the end of the show is simply wrong.
This musical misstep is, at the curtain, exacerbated by the creation of the aforementioned tableau vivant, with the characters gathering together as if they are posing for a family portrait, eyes uplifted towards a heaven where all has been resolved and forgiven. It’s emotionally contrary to what has preceded it and, even more egregious, is an obvious attempt to send the audience members off with a song in their hearts and a smile on their lips. In other words, it’s false and just a tad manipulative.
Although we often have a tendency to remember best the last things we see and hear, the play’s final, wrong-headed moments shouldn’t taint what has come before, for the first 120 minutes or so (there’s no intermission) are often enthralling, made so by some very fine acting, perceptive direction, sensitive writing and very effective special effects. So, have a senior moment – erase Kelly’s “glorious feeling” and the final Norman Rockwell staged portrait from your memory and recall all of the good things that came before.
“el Huracán” runs through October 20. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.