Bathing in Moonlight opens subtly with the hum of gentle organ music, a stained glass window looming high above, and Father Monroe (Raúl Méndez) warmly greeting his congregation as he takes center stage to deliver an allegory. In short, the moral of his story is to extend the perimeters, break down the walls, remove the fences that separate us.
Choosing to open with this world premiere by Nilo Cruz, Director and Artistic Director Emily Mann has committed this season at McCarter Theatre Center to representing playwrights of diversity. Centering around a Cuban-American family in Miami and a priest torn between his two loves, Bathing in Moonlight addresses the conflicts between duty and passion.
Raúl Méndez is captivating as Father Monroe in his struggle to challenge the antiquated rules of the church while surrendering to his strong feelings for one of his parishioners, Marcela (Hannia Guillen), a struggling single mother who he has been assisting financially. As their love unfolds, their passion for each other begins to incite scandal.
Back at home, Marcela struggles to make ends meet supporting her daughter Trini (Katty Velasquez) and mother Martina, played beautifully by the great Priscilla Lopez. Cruz uses Martina, a fading matriarch suffering from some form of dementia, to introduce dream-like tangents to the world of the play as she interacts with her long-deceased husband, Taviano.
Frankie J. Alvarez skillfully portrays both Taviano Sr., Martina’s lost husband, and Taviano Jr., her son recently returned from medical school, ready to add to the family’s bad luck. While some of the other day-to-day drama can become monochromatic, Alvarez brings a standout vigor to his scenes. Similarly in the religious world, Michael Rudko (Bishop Andrew) contributes a fervent plea for Father Monroe to remain in the church, successfully accelerating the essential scenes towards the end of the play.
Edward Pierce’s detailed scenic and lighting design assists in the straddling of two worlds; the shadowy, reverent fortress of the church and the vibrant, well-worn family home. Similarly, costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser distributes lightness and depth to each character as required, with an especially dreamlike look for Martina and Taviano Sr.’s encounters. Original music and sound design by Darron L. West complete each distinct atmosphere, balancing a lively Miami feeling, a glowing trance, and a deferential worship.
Cruz has the beginning of three interesting stories here, which are naturally connected but don’t seem to always speak to each other. Love life, home life and church life are emotionally separated, even in scandal, and certain family conflicts seem to disappear from one scene to the next without resonance. In spite of being lauded for his poetry and lyrical language, some portions of cumbrous exposition weigh down Cruz’s dialogue throughout.
Bathing in Moonlight addresses the complex issues of forbidden love in a holy vocation and how commitment to family intersects with personal happiness. With an ever-increasing need for diverse voices on stage, Nilo Cruz’s work is a welcomed contribution to the complicated conversations that will continue to extend the existing perimeters.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.