Playwright Nilo Cruz labels his latest work, Exquisita Agonía, a “family drama.” Actually, the show that is currently playing at GALA Theatre is two family dramas that converge.
The first family centers around Millie, an opera singer who has left her career to track down the person who received her late husband’s heart after he died. Millie’s daughter is a wayward tattoo artist. Millie’s son has enough angst and anger to supply the Western world.
The second family is happier. Brothers Amér and Imanol have come to the United States from Latin America so that Amér can receive a new heart, one that previously belonged to Lorenzo, Millie’s composer husband. At the beginning of the play, Amér is recovering well in Miami’s Coconut Grove, although he is still afraid to drive. Imanol teases him but Amér resists doing too much too soon.
While Amér recuperates, Millie gets down to her primary obsession: finding out who received her husband’s heart after he died in a car crash. Millie uses her feminine wiles to find out from his doctor, Dr. Castillo, how to get in touch with the recipient. Eventually, she gets an address and writes a letter to Amér, explaining who she is and that she wants to make contact. A series of letters follow, back and forth.
When Millie and Amér finally meet, it is at the hospital, in the midst of their relatives. Millie’s son, Tommy, who is sardonic and skeptical, thinks meeting is weird; her daughter, Romy, is interested in the energetic young Amér, who is closer to her age than to her mother’s. When Millie asks Amér, his brother, and Dr. Castillo back to her estate to get to know one another better, the play seems to diverge from its original path. After an initial hug at the hospital, Millie seems to lose interest in Amér, which conveniently leaves Amér free to spend time with Romy.
This six-person cast is a truly well-balanced ensemble, although ultimately all the characters prove themselves to be too self-involved or too immature to make lasting connections with each other.
On balance, the role of Millie seems more of a caricature of a has-been actress than a “renowned opera singer,” but Luz Nicolás portrays the most important aspect of Millie to a fault. She is clearly confused about her deceased husband: he was both good and bad to her; she blamed him and forgave him; she loved and hated him. And that was just what Cruz intended.
Amér is played with intelligence and grace by Joel Hernández Lara. His is a large role and he performs every moment of it beautifully. Imanol is a small part by comparison, played by José Antonio González, but Lara and González complement one another nicely throughout.
Dr. Castillo is a confusing character. A curious mix of serious and comical instincts, he is also a combination of sickness and healthiness. Ariel Techidó plays both sides of the doctor’s personality with humor and self-awareness. Catherine Nunez is delightful as Romy, who knows far more about the real world than her mother does. Near the play’s end, Andrés Talero drops his scornful tone as Tommy and becomes very moving as he delivers a troubling speech about pedophilia.
Directed by Cruz’s skillful hand, Exquisita Agonía uses few props to tell its story. The letters between Millie’s house and Amér’s are an example. The letters are handed from one actor to another until they have gone from the hand of the first actor to the hands of the other five.
Clifton Chadick’s scenic design utilizes sliding, painted flats against the GALA back wall to indicate tapestry-draped rooms in a richly decorated villa. Six gold-leafed straight chairs sit in rows together on the stage. Whatever cast members are not acting sit in them. Stage right is a large, three-tiered set piece to give the actors elevation when needed.
Moyenda Kulemeka’s costume design calls on several traditions. She dresses Millie in modern-day form-fitting dresses and eye-catching high heels. Romy is always dressed in short, black miniskirts over spandex tights; heavy boots not optional. Tommy is also always in black. Amér and Imanol usually wear dark sweaters and slacks.
One of the real delights of this production is the fact that it weaves opera through the show itself, as a reminder that the stories Millie tells onstage are stories from opera, stories of “exquisite agony.” David Crandall has put together a selection of opera and non-operatic music that will be very familiar and welcome to GALA’s audience. Christopher Annas-Lee’s lighting design makes the most of the nearly bare stage, at times making it pop with color.
In his Director’s Notes, Cruz mentions that what intrigues him most about Millie is not the plot but “the world she inhabits.” Unfortunately, with her quirky sense of humor and unique ability to misunderstand the real world, the world where opera does not hold sway, Millie is not at all like Orpheus trying to save his Eurydice. Maybe in his next play, Cruz will pick up that thread and give us a woman who “tries in vain to rescue a love that has already passed from this world.”
Running Time: Two hours including one 10-minute intermission. Presented in Spanish, with English surtitles.
Rayna Cook, Props Designer; Jessica Pecharsky, Stage Manager; Gustavo Ott, Heather McKay, Surtitles Programmers; Esther Gentile, Surtitles Operator