Catalina Maynard in "El Huracan." Karli Cadel Photography
What’s a mere hurricane compared to the storms in the mind that make reality murkier and connections to loved ones more tenuous?
In the late summer of 1992 in Miami, Hurricane Andrew looms. Inside one Cuban-American home, Harvard student Miranda has returned to “help” her mother Ximena and grandmother Valeria, who is slipping gradually and heartbreakingly into dementia.
Before we even get there, we’re in the audience at the Tropicana Club in Havana where a young Valeria and a dashing partner are dancing to the joyous escapism of Frank Sinatra singing “In Other Words (Fly Me to the Moon”). The magic and music will give way to the helpless circumstances in the Miami household.
There are many layers to Charise Castro Smith’s beautiful “El Huracan,” now onstage at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. It’s more than a story of slipping away, more than a so-called memory play. In the best local production of the year so far (I know, it’s only January, but you have to start sometime), the synergy of the playwright’s sensitivity and a superb cast results in a profound and enduring theater experience.
The Valeria we meet at the outset (Amalia Alarcon Morris) is disoriented and delusional, much to the frustration and pain of daughter Ximena (Catalina Maynard) and granddaughter Miranda (Sandra Ruiz). But dwelling deep inside precious memories she has other lives: the playful relationship with her sister Alicia (Carla Navarro) and the courtship by her true love Alonso (Manny Fernandes).
In spite of her friction with her mother, Miranda is able to connect with Valeria in a way Ximena cannot, even to the point of getting her to perform a little magic as she had when a performer. But Miranda’s flirtation with Fernando (Christopher Cruz), the young man who’s in the home to prepare and safeguard it from the coming hurricane, leads to tragedy.
It’s afterward when years pass right before our eyes that the subject of forgiveness becomes paramount in “El Huracan,” directed with great acumen by Daniel Jaquez. It’s also the point when the play centers no longer on Valeria but on Ximena, who has inherited her mother’s terrible disease.
In both English and Spanish, Castro Smith, who is Cuban-American and from Miami, articulates the desperation of loss: of memory, of course, but also to some degree hope. I wished my own Spanish were better, for I might have appreciated all the more the tenderness residing in “El Huracan.”
Maynard’s performance is a special one, particularly in the last 15 minutes of the 95-minute production. The distance in her eyes and the anguish of Ximena’s internal struggle are wrenchingly sad.
Ruiz’s transformations over the years of the “El Huracan” story establish Miranda as a woman whose heart was always in the right place even if her will was not. Morris does wonderful things with Valeria throughout, always able to be affecting and somehow luminous.
Hurricane Andrew is almost an afterthought in the telling of this tale, though sound effects by Eliza Vedar are a reminder of its fury. (It is still considered to be the most destructive hurricane to ever hit Florida.) Guaranteed you won’t be thinking about it when the lights dissolve into darkness at production’s end.
“El Huracan” runs through Feb. 19 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.