The play works on Anibal as it works on us. While Celestina is a transforming spirit (and Nelson is a plot device), Anibal is the character we identify with. Raised in a Puerto Rican family, he might be called a nonpracticing Hispanic. And yet the emotional turning point of the play arrives when Anibal listens to Celestina speak to him in Spanish. Later he recalls her speech's power as "the language my parents spoke the night of my conception." Those of us who hear Spanish daily in our homes or in the street will hear something utterly fresh in Anibal's discovery of its power. Those who don't live in a bilingual world may glimpse what they are missing.
Directed by New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha, this production hinges not only on its powerful prevailing mood but also on a number of exquisitely tender moments, most of them deftly acted. As Anibal, Carlos Orizondo gives the most consistently strong performance. Israel Garcia's Nelson, however, is barely two-dimensional, and this detracts from the production. As Garcia trips over the street dialect of his character, his performance often feels forced and shallow.
As Celestina, Tanya Bravo has the most difficult role. Celestina's essence is ambiguous. Is she crazy? Is she simple-minded? Is she even human? Bravo does an admirable job of bridging a number of realities.
So does the play itself. Its final and most tender moments underscore the trick of imagination that Rivera pulls off in a play about characters who happen to live in two cultures. Without giving away anything, I'll reveal that this moment involves a curtain speech, in which Anibal repeats and Celestina translates into English a series of thoughts she had earlier told him in Spanish. The two actors speak in succession. They say the same thing, and yet they don't. Rivera understands that sometimes it takes two languages to tell one story.
Written by Jose Rivera. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring Tanya Bravo, Israel Garcia, and Carlos Orizondo. Through June 28. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.