Thirteen years ago, McCarter Theatre’s artistic director Emily Mann and playwright Nilo Cruz teamed up to present the premiere of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, and their new collaboration—the world premiere of Bathing in Moonlight—is terrific! On stage 9/16-10/9.
In today’s Miami, three generations of a Cuban family are exiled. The widowed grandmother Martina (Priscilla Lopez) has early dementia and feels she’s never found her place in America; daughter Marcela (Hannia Guillen) is desperate to hold the family together in tough economic circumstances; and granddaughter Trini (Katty Velasquez) is an assimilated American teen, bent on a career in marine biology. Two men disturb the stability of this affectionate home.
Marcela’s brother Taviano (Frankie J. Alvarez) is away, studying to become a doctor, which may finally solve the family’s precarious finances. Her beloved piano was sold to help pay for his education, but he’s been out of touch for two years. When he returns, his resemblance to his father discomposes the already confused Martina. Worse is the news he gives Marcela—he’s failed his medical exams.
The other man in their lives is Father Monroe (Raúl Méndez), a dedicated and sympathetic parish priest. He lets Marcela play the piano at the church and, attuned to the family’s poverty, lends her money to cover their rent. Marcela finds him attractive in an unattainable way. However, the attraction is mutual, and difficult choices loom.
Director Mann considers Cruz “one of the great poets of the American theater, akin to Tennessee Williams,” and certainly in this play, the poetry, humor, and humanity in these simple situations shines through. Cruz thinks of his works as musical compositions, with each character an instrument contributing to the whole. Their speech contains Spanish rhythms, and even the three levels of Cuban accent create a chord, with the abuela’s accent the strongest, Marcela’s medium-strength, and the granddaughter’s almost disappeared.
The role of Father Monroe is the U.S. stage debut for Mexican actor Raúl Méndez, and he is powerful in it. From the opening when he charms the audience with a sermon about inclusion, his every gesture and expression is pitch-perfect. He’s a stand-out in a strong cast. Lopez and Velasquez imbue the aging grandmother and sprightly granddaughter with personality and verve. Cuban Alvarez in the dual-role of father and son expertly plays two generations. The most opaque character is Marcela, oddly, and I think that’s the play, not Guillen’s performance. Marcela is surrounded by people with so many needs, and so accustomed to putting those needs first, it’s hard for her to come into her own.
Charles Isherwood in the New York Times was ungenerous in his review, saying, “the Catholic Church’s strictures on the priesthood (no women, no marriage), . . . which even many Catholics consider ludicrously out of step with today’s world — have been fodder for debate in the popular media for years,” but this is a narrow interpretation. The play unfolded against the backdrop of Father Monroe’s opening sermon about including “the other,” about how we shouldn’t construct walls to keep people out, but to bring them in. To me, that was (alas!) as relevant to 2016 as to 1716 or to 1139, particularly for our Latino brethren.
The play, which received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, raises interesting high-level questions about faith, orthodoxy, exile, and love across generations, beautifully staged and acted—well worth the trip to Princeton!