1991 was the beginning of a particularly challenging time for the Cuban people. Perestroika had led to the break up of the Soviet Union, which began pulling troops and support from the Communist island nation. It is against the backdrop of the resulting shortages and protests that Nilo Cruz sets Two Sisters and a Piano. While he frequently explores the immigrant experience, here amnesty and escape remain out of reach. Written four years before his Pulitzer Prize winning Anna in the Tropics, this work is spun tightly around sisters Sofia and Maria Celia who are fighting the diminishing effect of living under house arrest. Sofia soothes herself by playing a decaying family piano and eavesdropping on her neighbor, while celebrated author Maria Celia pours her soul into letters to her absent husband. Their country may be playing host to the Pan American Games, but the only sense of movement in their lives comes from their trips to the roof. An opening is punctured in the crushing claustrophobia when the dashing Lieutenant Portuondo begins romantically pursuing Maria Celia; a relationship that offers both promises and threats.
The production currently being streamed by New Normal Rep springs to life in minute one when the silence of the opening credits is shattered by the entrance of two officers searching the sisters’ abode. Despite limited physical action, the timing of the actors gives the drama a strong beating pulse throughout the two hours. The opening interrogation sets the scene as well as the pace. We can see the stained and browning walls and the once-grand furnishings beautifully rendered by Vanessa Corrente. Like the previous NNR production, the Zoom backgrounds are designed to look contiguous making the staging appear more cohesive than many online offerings. Bumper shots of Cuba pop splashes of color into the somberness. Music by Sancho & Morin — both original songs and classical pieces — provide a wistful soundtrack for old memories and developing stories.
While the Russians may be receding from Cuba in the plot, their influence is ever present on stage. The similarity between this work and that of Anton Chekhov is clear in both the emotional tides experienced by the characters and the poetry of the language they employ. Also serving as director, Mr. Cruz enhances this flavor, developing a particularly strong chemistry between his two actresses. He choreographs the luminous Florencia Lozano in the graceful and carefully considered gestures of the cerebral Maria Celia and brings forth a widening ripple of menace from deep inside a smoldering Jimmy Smits as Portuondo. Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played the role of Sofia in 1999 at the Public Theater, repeats her performance, but this time her hair bows and childish mannerisms ultimately take on an uncomfortable Baby Jane quality. Her strongest scene is with the charmingly awkward piano tuner played by Gary Perez as he tries to reverse the results of the instrument’s neglect as well as that of its owner.
Our collective desire to break free from our homes and a desperation for connection gives Two Sisters and a Piano an air of relatability at this precarious time. It is available to stream on demand from the New Normal Rep website for $25 ($10 for students and theater professionals) through May 23.