The ghostly images that play silently on a screen behind the cast of the Dramat’s “Anna in The Tropics,” which opened Thursday, are at first a mystery. The play is set in a Tampa cigar factory in 1929, and the shots and blurred frames of unidentified lovers seem a strange backdrop. Eventually the clips reveal themselves as scenes from an old film version of “Anna Karenina.” They parallel the onstage action just as the play draws on the novel, in an intricate but satisfying web of adaptation.
Tolstoy’s classic is the seed from which “Tropics” grew, but the title refuses to show how the two are related. Is this just “Anna Karenina” set in the tropics? Or does the billing allude to the play’s focal point, a reading of “Anna Karenina” by a cigar factory lector? The play’s conceit, as it is revealed, is that the reading of “Anna Karenina” precipitates a series of events that mirror the book’s plot — trysts and jealousy, conflict and murder. Juan Julian, Fabian Fernandez ’15, the lector who reads to the workers as they roll cigars by hand, is himself at the center of the affair that quietly becomes the play’s main conflict. His readings win him the heart of Conchita, Rebecca Brudner ’16, a factory worker unhappy with her failing marriage to Palomo, Iason Togias ’16, another worker. Conchita’s role in the play is the counterpart of Anna’s in the novel, and Brudner makes us believe she could balance two lovers.
The play’s allusions to “Anna Karenina” imbue the fraught relationships onstage with a sense of tragedy, projecting them onto the romances of the novel. The video clips roll as Juan Julian, who Fernandez plays expertly and with an appropriate sense of reserve, reads aloud. The three mediums of “Anna Karenina” blend together until it’s unclear which, if any, is supposed to take center stage. The sum total of the parallel narratives is destablizing, but effective.
The setting of “Tropics” places its characters into another conflict, between the romantic and the modern. Cheché, Tim Creavin ’15, the factory owner’s brother, has brought the future with him after showing up unexpected and uninvited sometime before the play’s beginning. Cheché is from “up North” and seems to symbolize modernization and mechanization — as sales fall, he brings a rolling machine to the factory one day, only to be roundly decried by the workers fearing for their jobs. His machine is a counterpoint to Julian’s “Karenina,” the onrush of hectic modern life against the idyll of aristocratic love. The play comes down in the corner of rose-tinged nostalgia; by paralleling “Anna Karenina” so heavily, the Dramat’s production almost romanticizes itself. But by placing its emphasis on a novel and not a time period, the play largely avoids a heavy-handed celebration of nostalgia.
A few currents of irony run throughout the play’s folded narratives. The first is that the most human characters are those working against the play’s thematic heart. Palomo and Cheché are the only two to oppose keeping the lector, the only two willing to abandon the world of “Anna Karenina” for a world of cars and profits. They are set up as antagonists, but thanks to a pair of the production’s finest performances, from Iason Togias and Tim Creavin respectively, their characters seem three-dimensional and full of grit and sympathy. Togias, for instance, turns Palomo’s argument with Conchita into a moment of empathy for the character, even though he doesn’t seem to deserve one. It’s these characters who, in the end, are most affected by the novel they had tried to silence.
The other irony is that, for a play based on the prose of a celebrated novel, the dialogue can seem stilted and over-wrought at times. Similes protrude at odd angles from otherwise normal conversations, and at one point, Conchita cries, “You don’t make love to me like you used to!” But the cast takes flat lines in stride, and rarely do they distract from the drama taking place behind the words.
In the end, the plot abandons its parallels to “Anna Karenina” in favor of a tangled but powerful ending. The book itself is at one point thrown to the ground. Tolstoy’s sublime romance seems impossible in the play’s modernizing world. The factory produces an “Anna Karenina” line of cigars that represent everything the play celebrates — sex, leisure and tobacco smoke. But we don’t learn whether the new line will save the floundering factory, leaving us to wonder whether love and hand-rolled cigars can survive amidst machines and modernity.