"When the Sun Shone Brighter" Is a Messy, Loving State of Our State

Florida is a hard place to represent in drama. How does a stage production communicate Florida's strangeness — the gangsters, the crackers, the queers, the yachtsmen? Some essential thing will be left out, and those who know the place will be left confronting the representation of a state they haven't seen before: a limited, and therefore wrong, approximation.

When the Sun Shone Brighter at Florida Stage represents Florida's contradictions by cramming them into the person of Jose "Joe" Sanchez-Fors Jr. (played by Dan Domingues). He is an anti-Castro Cuban who would have cause to hate other anti-Castro Cubans but doesn't. He's the head of a beautiful archetypical Floridian family (tanned; smelling of sea spray, money, and Botox). He's a closeted gay man in a long-term relationship. He is a thief with dreams of genuine accomplishment, and he is an idealistic liar. He is unsettled, in other words — motivated by the raw human electricity of his outlaw pioneer spirit. He is a Floridian to his bones.

Joe is the mayor of Miami-Dade County. The year is 2002 — an election year, in which Joe hopes to win one of Florida's two Senate seats and move to Washington. He has been a successful mayor, and he has all the requisite ingredients: the Cuban thing, the conservative thing, the jingoist thing. Joe's ultimate victory is all but guaranteed. Our own common sense tells us this, as do the characters onstage, who inform us, early and often, of Joe's supremacy in the polls.

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When the Sun Shone Brighter, through June 20 at Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Click here.

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Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown never tries to illustrate Joe's success. Campaigns are noisy, messy, crowded things, but Demos-Brown forgoes all that. When the Sun Shone Brighter is a meditation on history and on the nexus of power and personal responsibility. What it is not is the study of politics as it is practiced by top-dollar senatorial campaigns. When the Sun Shone Brighter is too expository to teach us anything like that, composed of characters who explain their thoughts and feelings but never demonstrate them or drive them toward their natural conclusions. For this reason, the worst bits of When the Sun Shone Brighter are downright boring. Windy, pretty prose cannot quite mask a creeping irritation at having to listen to yet another exegesis of the beauty of Batista's Cuba.

This is a damned shame, because several of the most snooze-inspiring moments are also the loveliest. When the ghost of Joe's long-ago-murdered father (Bill Schwartz) arrives onstage and explains how he came to moderate his once-fanatical anti-Castro leanings, he is merely stating a position — just as Joe would on the stump — but it's ravishing. Tap into the flow of his words and you'll be moved. Wait for them to lead to action, however, and you'll wonder why you're there.

When the Sun Shone Brighter is a catalog of thoughts and memories experienced by Joe in his quiet moments on the campaign trail. Far from the fire and fury of the debates, the crowds, the wrestling over issues, we observe a series of conversations with his chief handler, a rabid anti-Castro exile named Manny Arostegui (played by John Herrera, who can be the picture of wrath when the script demands but stiffens up in moments of levity); with his wife, Liz (Natasha Sherritt, who seems bored); with a cop trying to solve his father's murder (Brandon Morris, lending his innate verve to lines more suited to a Lifetime original movie); and with his boyfriend, Tony Rinaldi (an unusually tanned and toned Cliff Burgess, who turns in a nimble, intelligent performance). The overriding theme of these conversations is the way power leads us away from our true natures. The play's last scene depicts a betrayal loosely based on the apostle Peter's denials of Jesus. Given how much we've come to appreciate the complexity and strange beauty of Joe's hidden life, it's shattering.

Joe is the play's most wretched, and most likable, character. The compromises he makes have to be made, yet no ordinary person would submit to them. Getting to know him through Domingues' sweaty but slick interpretation gives a fine feel for the kind of reptilian half-life entered into by those who make their livings in politics.

We are inclined to forgive him if only because Louis Tyrell's production makes Joe's political mission feel like a struggle for survival. There is something savage in his eyes and something primordial about the Florida conjured up in Florida Stage's big auditorium. (Alas, this is the last time we'll see it: After When the Sun Shone Brighter, Tyrell and company make a permanent move to the Kravis Center.) The set is a simple affair: silhouettes of trees behind a big, polychromatic scrim; a few elegant pieces of furniture scattered across the vastness of the stage. Tyrell's Florida looks like a thin veneer of civilization spread across the uncontrollable chaos of nature. If there is a better conception of our state or the state of politics in general, I haven't seen it.

 
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