'Two Sisters and a Piano' Is a Study On the Limits of Trust

click to enlarge 'Two Sisters and a Piano' Is a Study On the Limits of Trust
Photo by Daniel Baumer
The two sisters are Maria Celia, a 36-year-old writer, and Sofia, a 24-year-old pianist. The piano is a weathered old instrument that has been in the Obispo family for three generations and is badly in need of repair. "Two Sisters and a Piano," a 1999 two-act play by Nilo Cruz, the Cuban American who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Anna in the Tropics," is a study in the limits of trust. Set in Cuba in 1991, when the Russians are withdrawing and the Castro regime is cracking down on the kind of dissent that is fracturing the Soviet Union, the play places its characters’ personal tensions within the context of political repression.

Because of something deemed counter-revolutionary that Maria Celia wrote, she and Sofia spent two years in prison. They are currently under house arrest, and they are forbidden company and access to anything beyond the four walls of their domestic dungeon. They are regularly visited by Lieutenant Portuondo, who inventories their possessions and enforces their confinement. He has other purposes in mind as well.

As Lt. Portuondo, Victor Trevino exposes several often contradictory layers – zealous defender of the Cuban Revolution, country boy awestruck by urban sophisticates, smitten swain, covert heretic, and cunning exploiter of others’ aspirations. To magnify his vehemence in the second act, Trevino is so understated in the first act that it is often difficult to hear him even within the intimate space of the Cellar Theater.

As Maria Celia, Maria Ibarra chafes under her sequestration and pines for the husband she has not seen in years. He has gone abroad, and her letters to him have been confiscated by the authorities. Lt. Portuondo holds a pile of mail the husband has sent to Maria Celia, and he promises to read them to her if she in turn reads him her latest fiction. The officer also hopes to satisfy his lust for the comely and frustrated author. Ibarra’s characterization offers an ambiguous mix of defiance, wistfulness, and desire. Ibarra and Trevino strike erotic sparks, but also tease us with the question of who is outwitting whom.

As Sofia, Ailyn Duran - so cramped by her incarceration in a torrid residence with a sister she both adores and resents that she is hot to couple with any man, real or imaginary - projects the most blatant sexual hunger. “You have canaries inside your brain,” Maria Celia chides. Duran plays an unconvincing air piano, but she is this intermittently affecting play’s most insistent champion of liberation, a canary in a dim Caribbean coal mine.

Two Sisters and a Piano
By Nilo Cruz, Directed by Omar Leos, $12-$30, 8:00 pm Fri., Sat., & Sun., 3:00 p.m. Sun. The Playhouse – Cellar Theater, 800 West Ashby, 210-733-7258, ThePlayhouseSA.orgThrough Aug. 21

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