‘Two Sisters and a Piano’ revisits struggle to find hope amid oppression of ’91 Cuba

by JAY LUSTIG
two sisters and piano review

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Eden Espinosa, left, and Helen Cespedes co-star in “Two Sisters and a Piano” at the Two River Theater in Red Bank.

It is 1991 and María Celia, a dissident writer in Cuba, and her younger sister Sofia, a pianist, have been released from the prison where they were being held because of their political views. They now live under house arrest in their own home — separated from María Celia’s husband, who is also a dissident and in exile overseas.

“At least here we can walk all the way from the kitchen from the living room, and that’s a long distance compared to the size of our cell back in prison,” María Celia writes in a letter to her husband.

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Jason Manuel Olazábal and Eden Espinosa in “Two Sisters and a Piano.”

The two title characters of Nilo Cruz’s 1998 drama “Two Sisters and a Piano” — which is currently being presented at the Two River Theater in Red Bank — still have their piano, though. And a rooftop where they can sit and dream. Russia is undergoing great change, they have learned, in the age of perestroika, and Cuba may change, too, they hope. But it hasn’t happened yet.

While they are pretty much living in isolation, María Celia (played by Eden Espinosa) and Sofia (Helen Cespedes) do have visits, at times, from Lt. Portuondo (Jason Manuel Olazábal), who is overseeing their house arrest, and piano tuner Victor Manuel (Hiram Delgado), who has been hired to rehabilitate their long-neglected instrument. It — metaphor alert! — has been wilting in the unrelenting tropical heat. (Delgado also plays a cruel, crude associate of the more civil Lt. Portuondo).

Lt. Portuondo is attracted to María Celia, and has power over her via possession of the letters that her husband is sending to her. When he reads them to her, it’s as if his gruff exterior fades away, and he “becomes” her husband, to some extent.

“I’ve been locked up in this house for a long time. Too long,” she says. “And it does something to the mind. A sort of blindness, that when you close your eyes, makes you see someone in front of you who isn’t really there.”

“And who’s that? Your husband?” he replies. “Did you see your husband in me?”

Sofia, meanwhile, fantasizes about the unseen man who lives next door (“You sound like a cat in heat,” María Celia tells her) and practically throws herself at Victor Manuel when he arrives at the home to do his work.

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Helen Cespedes, left, and Eden Espinosa in “Two Sisters and a Piano.”

Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Anna in the Tropics,” directs this production, which has a slow, deliberate, almost dream-like feel — echoed by the pristine prettiness of the music that is heard between scenes — as it explores the subtle shifts in the relationship between the sisters, and between the two women and the men in their lives. Victor Manuel may keep his distance from the emotional roller coaster, but María Celia, Sofia and Lt. Portuondo go through a lot for a play that takes place, basically, in a home that has become a prison cell.

“Two Sisters and a Piano” is a heavily psychological play that also can be seen as a political play, to some extent. But the political games are being played by nameless, faceless powers-that-be in the distance; these characters are just trying to get by, and do whatever they can to resist, in a society of oppression.

I feel that the biggest problem with this play is that there isn’t enough poetry in Cruz’s writing to justify the romance of his story. I mean, Lt. Portuondo is supposed to be entranced by María Celia’s writing, and María Celia by her husband’s letters, but when we hear examples of either, they sound more ordinary than exceptional. One starts to wonder what all the fuss is about.

On the other hand, maybe that is part of the point: These characters — Lt. Portuondo included — are living in a state of deprivation, given the harsh realities of the place and time in which they find themselves. And they will do whatever they need to do, to bring some magic into their dreary lives.

Two River Theater in Red Bank presents “Two Sisters and a Piano” through June 25; visit tworivertheater.org.

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