Cygnet Theatre Presents West Coast Premiere of El Huracán by Charise Castro Smith

A Play that Goes Deep into Latin American Matriarchy and the Meaning of Family 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

The cast of El Huracán. Photo by Karli Cadel
Ximena (Catalina Maynard) is a middle-aged woman living in Miami. Her daughter Miranda (Sandra Ruiz) is going to college but is back home to help with her abuela Valeria (Amalia Alarcón Morris), Ximena's mom because hurricane Andrew is coming and Valeria's house is not safe. She is also going through dementia and literally letting go of reality. During the 90-minute piece, we see how Valeria starts with this family, meeting Alonso (Manny Fernandes) and getting married in her native Cuba where she was a talented, successful magician at The Tropicana. Alicia (Carla Navarro), Valeria's sister, drowned at sea during the Cuban revolution and this haunts Valeria because she could not give Alicia a proper burial. Instead, Valeria buries the sister within her memory never talking about her. All these life chapters haunt her mind and she is always longing for Alonso who ran as soon as he found out his wife was starting with dementia. Once everybody is safe at Ximena's, the neighbor Fernando (Christopher Cruz) who's around Miranda's age, is staying with the women while the hurricane passes for protection. Rum drinks pour and so does the heart when the youngsters confess their crushes on each other. Valeria is sleeping but she wakes up and walks out to never be seen again. Ximena blames Miranda and they do not talk for 25 years until Miranda comes back with her own daughter to take care of Ximena whose mind is starting to let go...

Most Latin American families are led by matriarchs. I was very appreciative of Cygnet theatre's production of El Huracán which really cracks this family dynamic. -SUPER appreciative as well to see a play within American Theatre about a Latin American family and NOT about illegal immigration, mea culpas, and exhausted narratives that continue feeding stereotypes-... anywho, 'Huracán written by Charise Castro Smith premiered in 2018 at Yale Repertory Theatre and this San Diego production is the third in the history of the piece as well as its West Coast Premiere.

Yi-Chien Lee's simple set design with blue tones and a light twirl on the ceiling simulating a hurricane is more than enough to house this well-written story. Amalia Alarcón Morris is truly moving as Valeria delivering different deep layers: the Cuban woman, the magician and artist, the wife, the mother, and the grandmother. You see a headstrong grandma wanting to own her independence and live her life as well as seeing a lost woman and a brokenhearted wife. I loved her Cuban accent, I thought it was on point. There are a couple of Cuban lullabies and songs that are shared during the performance that some people in the audience sang along to and it made it even more enchanting. I felt such nostalgia for everything and I am not even Cuban! Let alone know the songs, but it is the warmness of the culture and a family full of women that is the essence of this play and it hits you.

Amalia Alarcón Morris and Manny Fernandes. Photo by Karli Cadel
Because Alicia drowned, she always appears wet in a bathing suit, giving absolute chills. Eliza Vedar's sound design adds another powerful coat to the drama. Sometimes when Alicia comes to the scene, you can hear this wind gushing, a bit too like a tornado which accentuates the momentum with a deeper feel and meaning. The departed Alicia haunts Valeria's memory but it holds it together at the same time. Carla Navarro is epic as Alicia portraying sassy and carefree, yet somber.

Daniel Jáquez did a great job guiding this piece that flirts with magic realism through the stage along its timeline going back and forth. There is a sense of tenderness and care for the work. Elba Emicente Sanchez's powerful lighting design emphasizes it all with deep strokes between the back and forth. There is a scene where the actresses change onstage, letting the audience know time has passed. An admiration follows for the design work, especially for the props design by Teresa Jove, costume design by Daniella Toscano, and wig and makeup design by Peter Herman as you see it all there in the raw.

Sandra Ruiz has a good rapport with all the cast from the turbulent relationship with Ximena, to the flirting with Fernando, and the bond with Valeria. All different shades of great. Catalina Maynard is wonderful as the new head of the family. I could totally see my mother in her, worried, not knowing what to do, how, or why and just being aware of the love for her mom and daughter. It was not an easy task and Maynard gave all the feelings. The male characters shape the core of the play. Manny Fernandes coming in and out of the stage just like his character in the life of his wife and daughter, I liked that sort of a moral to the story type of thing. Christopher Cruz as the beefcake neighbor brings a bit of calm to the chaos happening amongst all the estrogen. It is funny to watch how Miranda alludes to his looks and muscles. There is a nice communion moment between the actors and the audience. 

The play has also a couple of powerful confrontations that make it real! Great sentencing that is absolutely relatable and gets to the heart. Ximena confronts her dad and does not hold back telling him that not only was her mom's mind being shredded but he too shredded her heart by leaving. When Miranda sees her mom again after two decades, she reassures her mom by saying "If you cannot hold on to your memories, we will hold them for you", my goodness...I am starting to tear up again. It does not matter if you have a family member that has gone through dementia or Alzheimers, this really hits home, it is a vulnerable piece that lays out onto the stage to bring out all the feelings.

Carla Navarro and Christopher Cruz. Photo by Karli Cadel
As mentioned, Charise Castro Smith did a wonderful job writing this play however, there are some gaps that she could not resolve -I am assuming- even during the staging/rewrite period. There isn't a mention of Miranda's dad or who he is, nada. Alonso leaves Valeria, her mind does too and then he comes back and is sorry...there is no palpable thread. Like when a painter does not master how to define fingers, this is the same. The story as a whole is lacking some finger definition or if it was a conscious decision, it needs a stronger landing. That is one of my peeve notes for this one. Maybe a slight rewrite to sharpen the edges will make it even more powerful.

Go see for yourself and if you are able, bring your mom, your sister, and your grandma. 

The other peeve is that this is the second play in San Diego in a bit over a year that touches upon a Cuban family and dementia... looking too much into it maybe but, if I see a third one, I will be concerned...

El Huracán is currently playing at Cygnet theatre in Old Town until February 19. For ticket prices and performance times please click here

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