By Bill Hirschman
An elderly woman wearing a house dress and a top hat waves a magic wand at the physicalized memory of two young people performing a slick nightclub magic act in the 1950s.
For her, reality is lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s Disease as Hurricane Andrew hurtles toward her already troubled family in Miami. But we also see from inside her memory crystalline sharp reveries of death and betrayal invading her consciousness.
The past, the present and the future intertwine in a magical dance seasoned with love and guilt in GableStage’s outstanding El huracán as three generations of women wrestle with loss and forgiveness that crosses nine decades.
A superb script by Charise Castro Smith, adeptly directed by Dámaso Rodriguez, enhanced with deft light and sound, and made corporeal by a fine cast produce a breath-taking example of what theater can deliver that no other art form can.
Even film cannot produce this sense that a four-dimensional time swirl is occurring live in front of your face.
But it’s not just the visuals a few feet away of the 70-year-old Valeria fascinated by the vision of her youthful self performing the magic act she headlined in pre-Castro Cuba.
It’s the criss-crossing interlocking of blame and regrets that extend into the second half of the play when it moves a quarter-century from August 1992 to 2017.
The play opens as Andrew is closing in on the expansive Miami living room of dementia-afflicted Valeria (Barbara Bonilla). Her middle-aged daughter Ximena (Adriana Sevan) is packing up some of the belongings to take to her own safer home where Valeria has been living. Valeria was a popular skilled magician with her assistant/husband Alonso (James Puig) in Cuba before they escaped to Miami. But now, like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magician is now isolated, this time by the illness.
Ximena is worn out from years of being the caretaker for her once vibrant mother. But Andrew isn’t the only tempest. Ximena’s 20-something trendy daughter Miranda (Thais Menendez) has returned from “perpetual grad studies” at Harvard to help her beloved grandmother in this emergency. But Miranda remains at profound odds with her own mother.
The sense of desertion infects several of them. Alonso actually deserted years earlier when Valeria began to show signs of the illness. Ximena feels Miranda has somewhat deserted the family. Valeria’s mind also slips back to the 1930s to converse with her sister Alicia (Emma Garcia Seeger) who later drowned.
Language plays a role as a barrier: Valeria speaks only in halting wandering Spanish in the present and Miranda’s command of the language is negligible. But in the reveries, Valeria speaks with clarity in English during the scenes occurring in her head.
Miranda, charged with watching over Valeria as the storm rages, has a hookup with a sexy contractor who had helped board up her mother’s home (Gabriel Salgado). A tragedy occurs while she is “occupied,” leading Miranda to desert the home once again, this time never expecting to return.
The story resumes 25 years later. Ximena is beginning to show early signs of Alzheimer’s and Miranda reluctantly returns with her own daughter (Seeger) to help her faltering mother and perhaps seek some clemency.
But the stain of past sins remains unresolved.
XIMENA: “Life comes at you, and you scatter like leaves. But I am stone. I don’t flee. I get struck by lightning. But I don’t leave.”
MIRANDA: “What do you think it was like, being raised by a stone?”
XIMENA: Your whole life, all we did was sacrifice for you. Worked our fingers to the bone- till they bled – for you. And the one time that your vulnerable, sick, dying grandmother needed you, you let her down.”
Still, Castro Smith, Rodriguez and the cast infuse compassion for human frailty into these characters’ journeys seeking forgiveness from others and for themselves.
These characters are witty; the needling humor you find in close families is threaded through the evening. (Many of the laugh lines are rooted in Spanish.) But they can smoothly slip into lyrical passages such as when Ximena in 2017 starts with what seems like a musing but ends up with quite a different tone.
“The morning after Andrew, Kennedy Park was littered with sailboats. The waves tossed them over the marina. They lay there in the sun like giant dying jellyfish. In Homestead, people’s roofs blew right off their houses. Looters everywhere- a curfew couldn’t stop them. And there were all these starved, terrified raccoons wandering around shell-shocked. Begging for food because people’s trash got washed out to sea. It was like the furious hand of God brushed the crumbs of civilization into Biscayne Bay. But it was nothing at all compared to the disaster you left in your wake.”
Castro Smith’s plays have premiered across the country with this one bowing in 2018 at the Yale Repertory Theatre in partnership with The Sol Project, a theater initiative created to bring Latinex writers to a broader audience. Recently, she gained attention and an Oscar for her co-writing and co-directing the animated Disney 2021 film Encanto.
Theatrical magic echoes the nature of Valeria’s visions. At one point, the plot narrative stops so that the family’s history can be told in a fable illustrated by a wry shadow play including crafted stencils. And further, when the era of the play changes in the second half of the evening, intentionally visible stagehands come on to change furniture, and staff help the actresses playing Ximena and Miranda change their clothes and add wigs while in full view of the audience to add 25 years to their characters.
The entire cast is flawless under Rodriguez’s molding. Most obvious is Bonilla who masterfully, almost effortlessly slips convincingly in and out from Valeria’s dementia into her fantasies and back again. Sevan credibly creates the classic Miamian whose character is an amalgam of both Cuba and America. But she is especially effective as we see her struggling not to accept the illness she recognizes all too well.
The unusually expansive set design for a GableStage production by Frank J. Oliva is an elegant two-story living room with a large balcony across the second floor. Notably, the walls look like stone, but – and few may notice this — they actually are a collage involving newspaper headlines and photos appropriately evoking the past.
Similarly, credit the lighting from Blanca Forzán that ranges from the candlelit interior of the powerless home to the storm’s explosions outside. Add praise for the all too familiar sounds of the storm that Rodolfo Ortega lays in including the threatening creak of wood as well as the thunder and growling winds.
While this should play well anywhere, it obviously has special resonances locally where Castro Smith always hoped it would be performed someday. Before the storm strikes, Miranda says, “They hyped up this storm on TV but so far it’s like a Category Nada.” The opening night audience, many who likely lived through Andrew, audibly murmured at the arrogance soon to be rebuked.
Magic in so many forms pervades the story from pulling items out of an empty bag to producing coins. But in the end, as Castro Smith, has Alonso informs us in what is not a cliché but a truth, “Love is the only real magic.”
El huracán plays through May 14 at GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. last Saturday of the run. Running time 100 minutes with no intermission. Tickets $35-$65 plus fees. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org. Students and teachers might be able to attend free. Arrive 1 hour prior to performance times, students of all ages may fill any unsold seat, free-of-charge. Student ID required.
To read a feature story about the production by Christine Dolen through Artburstmiami.com, click here.