BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic | Sun Times
Fidel Castro has ruled the roost in Cuba for nearly a half-century. And if nothing else, his domination of that island has triggered the imaginations of several generations of artists—many of them born in Cuba, but most of them living in some form of exile for decades.
Among those who have fed on the Cuban sense of connection and disconnection has been playwright Nilo Cruz—who was 9 years old when, in 1970, he moved with his family from Havana to Miami. Cruz is best known as the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Anna in the Tropics.”
“Anna” received its Chicago debut at Victory Gardens Theater two seasons ago. Now, an earlier play by the writer, “Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams”—which debuted in Coral Gables, Fla., in 2001 and has since been staged in New York and London—is about to get its Midwest premiere here. Cruz’s poetic drama, which opens Monday at Victory Gardens, is about the long estrangement and eventual reconciliation of Luca and Luciana, a brother and sister born in Cuba but raised in the United States.
The drama is bookended by two historical events. One relates to the siblings’ past: They were young children when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959 and quickly moved to nationalize the country’s industries, collectivize its agriculture and seize control of its school system.
Among Castro’s initiatives was a plan to send Cuban kids to work on the collective farms of the Soviet Union so that they could get a taste of the communist system. Not surprisingly, this left many Cuban parents in a state of desperation. One response to Castro’s plan (and the fear, after the Bay of Pigs incident, that there might be a war between Cuba and the U.S.), was “Operation Pedro Pan” (Operation Peter Pan).
Between December 1960 and October 1962, this loosely organized airlift—in large part supported by the Catholic church—helped shepherd more than 14,000 Cuban children to the United States. The idea was that their parents would follow, but often the families were not reunited for decades, if at all. And while some of the airlifted kids were taken in by caring U.S. families, others ended up in troubled foster homes or even orphanages.
Flash forward 37 years to January 1998, when Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Cuba and met with Castro. This also becomes the moment when Cruz’s fictional characters, Luca and Luciano, return to the island in search of their lost childhoods and more. Their spiritual guide is Hortensia, curator of her own very distinctive museum of dreams and miracles.
“Operation Pedro Pan was a very sad chapter in Cuban history,” said Cruz. “Children as young as 5 years old were separated from their parents. Three of my cousins came to the United States as Pedro Pan kids. I was only born in 1960, so I was too young. But I did a lot of research for this play and interviewed a number of those who arrived here as children. It was such a difficult situation for them; they lived in a state of limbo and uncertainty while waiting for their parents.”
Adding to Cruz’s fascination with the subject was his realization that such evacuations of children had taken place a number of times in history.
“There was the Kindertransport during World War II, when 10,000 children from Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia were sent to Great Britain, and then on to the U.S and Canada,” Cruz noted. “And there was something similar during the Spanish Civil War when 25,000 children from the Basque region were sent to other parts of Europe, Mexico and the Soviet Union. So there is a universal theme in this.
“I was also interested in what happens when two children are sent from their home to live in another place. Do they become parents to each other? Or friends and guardians? Or even lovers? What is a family?”
Directing “Hortensia” at Victory Gardens is Diane Rodriguez, associate producer and director of New Play Production at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. Rodriguez was the one who initially commissioned the play as part of CTG’s Latino Theatre Initiative, and she oversaw readings and workshops of it at the Mark Taper Forum, Connecticut’s Hartford Stage and California’s South Coast Repertory.
“This play is such an intriguing look at survival and the necessity of hope, humor and faith,” said the director. “It’s not a political statement, or an anti-Fidel rant. It’s about leaving home under difficult circumstances and about how people carry on in the world when they don’t have much.”
Cruz is now at work on the screenplay for an independent film production of “Anna in the Tropics,” and dreaming that Javier Bardem or Andy Garcia might star in it. And he is thrilled that the play was just staged in Spain and has been translated into German, French, Russian, Greek and Serbo-Croatian.
Rehearsals are about to begin at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club for a production of his newer play, “The Beauty of the Father,” which he described as a twist on “The Graduate.” It tells the story of a young woman who travels to Spain to see her father and becomes caught up in a triangle with his male lover. Yet another play, commissioned by Washington’s Arena Stage, is in the works, too, but Cruz says “it’s too early to talk about it except to say that it’s about immigration more than anything else.”