By Raquel V. Reyes
Two Sisters and a Piano, written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, is the play we need now. It is beautifully written, well-performed, and masterfully staged. This Miami New Drama production is as perfectly tuned as a concert piano. Go see it before it closes on February 18th.
Set in Havana, Cuba, during the 1991 Pan-American games, the story revolves around two sisters under house arrest. Writer Maria Celia, played by Thais Menedez, is on the government’s watch list for her allegorical stories calling for a different type of Cuban revolution.
After two years in jail, she and her pianist sister, Sofia, played by Stephanie Machado, are like wild birds in a cage. Freedom is just beyond the bars they can look through but mustn’t pass. The sisters even bicker and coo with each other like monk parrots in human form. Menedez and Machado are instantly believable as siblings bonded to each other by blood and cause.
The play opens with a jolting sputter of electricity. The home’s elegant chandelier cuts off, plunging the set into darkness. When the lights return, the sisters are under a barrage of violent-toned words. Two militiamen have entered their home to inventory the furniture. A rocking chair, a brass lamp, and a dozen other things are missing. The audience can see all the items the sisters have sold off.
They are suspended by cables above the playing area like ghosts. They are apparitions from better times before the hardships that swept the island after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The Colony Theater’s ceiling height and sloped seating allow for the impressive visual that looks like a giant wind chime of living room furnishings. It feels precarious (not unlike the women’s uncertain futures) and unsettling to have people walking below such heavy objects.
Scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader’s choices must be applauded. The set looks and feels like a crumbling Belle Époque mansion down to the titular grand piano needing repair.
A smoke machine is used subtly and with great effect to add a slow, humid haze to the environment, underlining the stasis of the sisters’ lives. David Lander’s lighting design, Michiko Kitayama Skinner’s costume design, and Salomon Lerner’s music and sound seamlessly work together. Every component is used with frugality and efficiency.
The other two characters in the play are male roles. Lieutenant Portuondo, acted by the accomplished Maurice Compte, is infatuated with Maria Celia.
The writing and acting steer clear of harsh jailer/jailed stereotypes, instead giving us moments of tenderness and memorable lines such as this one delivered by the Lieutenant to Maria Celia, “You get inside me like a war.”
Sofia’s love interest, Victor, the piano tuner, is played affably by Gabriell Salgado. Victor compliments Sofia’s fluttery, frustrated persona with good-natured charm. The pair give the drama its moment of levity and sweetness.
Despite the romantic pairings, Two Sisters and a Piano should not be mistaken for a romance. It is a tragedy with a serious message. The recent past shares similarities (book banning and the persecution of progressive ideas) with current headlines.
Nilo Cruz’s genius is in his light touch with the history. The themes never feel heavy-handed or didactic. The play is a joy to experience. It is the play we need now.
Raquel V. Reyes is the author of the award-winning Caribbean Kitchen Mystery series. Her latest novel is Barbacoa, Bomba, and Betrayal. Find her across social media as @LatinaSleuths and at www.LatinaSleuths.com
Two Sisters and a Piano presented by Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre at 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, runs through Feb. 18. For tickets, (305) 674-1040, https://miaminewdrama.org/show/two-sisters-and-a-piano/