Melinda Lopez is nothing if not ambitious.
In “Becoming Cuba,’’ now at Huntington Theatre Company under the direction of M. Bevin O’Gara, the playwright blends close-up and panorama, revelatory family drama and historical turning point, war story and love story — all within the walls of a Havana pharmacy.
Perhaps inevitably, the results are mixed. There are times, especially in Act Two, when the narrative line goes slack, as Lopez allows the tension to dissipate and storytelling momentum is sacrificed to the playwright’s lyricism. Nor does the romantic subplot in “Becoming Cuba’’ succeed in generating much heat.
But Lopez (“Sonia Flew’’), the Huntington’s playwright-in-residence, is a writer of such expressive vitality that she manages to make her crowded authorial canvas hum with life more often than not. She and director O’Gara (making her Huntington directorial debut after helming excellent SpeakEasy Stage Company productions of “Tribes’’ and “Clybourne Park’’) also demonstrate in “Becoming Cuba’’ a shrewd understanding of the ways that the contradictions and conflicts within a family can mirror those of a nation.
Lopez’s tale primarily unfolds in 1897, a time when Cuban rebels are waging an increasingly fierce insurgency against Spain in a quest for independence. Trying to keep her footing amid that turmoil is a 35-year-old pharmacist named Adela, well played by Christina Pumariega. Adela is the daughter of a Spanish mother and a Cuban father, and the widow of a Spaniard who was killed by Cuban rebels in the war.
The world Adela is clinging to and the world that is pressing in on her are skillfully evoked by set designer Cameron Anderson. Adela’s apothecary is a handsomely appointed place of high, dark shelves on which are methodically arrayed bottles of medicine and ointment, set against a backdrop that is a riot of abstract shapes in swirling colors of orange, dark-red and blue, suggesting the turbulence looming just beyond the pharmacist’s orderly existence.
Despite the scoffing of her impudent younger sister, Martina (an ebullient Rebecca Soler), Adela is determined to maintain good relations with the ruling Spanish: partly because she’s a pragmatic businesswoman, but also because she sees the pharmacy as a way to keep her husband’s memory alive. Adela is solicitous toward a troubled customer, played by Marianna Bassham with her usual fine-tuned sensitivity, even though the customer is the wife of the cruel Spanish lieutenant (Christopher Burns) who is the second-in-command to the general known as the Butcher.
But Adela’s position vis-à-vis the revolution becomes harder to sustain when her half-brother Manny, a fiery rebel portrayed by Juan Javier Cardenas, shows up at the pharmacy. He urges Adela to bring her medical expertise to the rebel effort by taking charge of their field hospital. “You need to make a choice now,’’ he tells her, later adding: “We’re not stopping until this island belongs to us. The men and women who bled for it.’’ Cardenas is compelling and charismatic as Manny, and you miss him when he’s not onstage.
As Adela wrestles with that choice, Lopez doesn’t let us forget that the events depicted onstage are part of a long historical continuum — the play begins with an address to the audience from a jauntily acerbic, deliberately anachronistic Spanish conquistador — or that there are invariably large geopolitical forces at work beyond the combatants. The US presence is represented by an American reporter named Davis, who is portrayed by Christopher Tarjan. The actor is drolly believable as a journalist, but less persuasive as the object of both sisters’ ardor. The chemistry between Tarjan and Pumariega is scant, and the romance between Davis and Adela drains focus from the play.
There is more juice when the two are jousting, as when Adela bitingly observes, in a reminder by the playwright of American complicity in the fate of other nations that we too often see as a kind of spectator sport: “Your readers supply the Butcher with one hand and cheer the insurrection with the other. We are not entertainment — to be digested between coffee and a boiled egg.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com