Mommie Dearest

Luis Santeiro, born in Cuba and raised in Miami, uses his roots and a finely-tuned sense of humor to draw unforgettable portraits of Cuban-American Miamians living in exile. He's won seven Emmy Awards creating laughs for the bilingual sitcom Que Pasa, U.S.A?, and for Sesame Street, and his Mixed Blessings, a re-telling of Moliere's Tartuffe with a Latin twist, was produced in 1989 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse as part of AT&T's celebrated OnStage program.

Luis Santeiro is also a great playwright.
In The Lady From Havana, which opens the season at the Coconut Grove Playhouse's Encore Room, Santeiro works subtle magic, drawing a funny but also anguished portrait of Cuban exiles in Miami growing old. But audiences don't have to be from Miami, or be Latin, to appreciate the play - they just need a family estranged by generational gaps and physical distance.

After twenty years of surviving in Cuba after the revolution, mastering the black market, and becoming guardian angel to the neighborhood's children, the formidable Mama Beba has arrived in Miami to live with her daughter Marita. Beba has also brought along her housemate and servant, Zoila, a simple young woman who worships Beba and her new country. The struggling divorcee Marita, now totally Americanized, fills every spare moment with work or exercise class. Marita's also bitter about living without a mother for two decades, and resents the love Beba seems to share so effortlessly with Zoila. From the first moments of the play, this volatile mix leads to repeated confrontations, as Marita tries unsuccessfully to please her mother, Mama tries to assert some independence in a land where she is seen as feeble and obsolete, and Zoila leaves her mistress to find work with an affluent couple (immediately accused by Mama of being cocaine dealers.)

The first act contains enough laughter and warmth for an entire evening's entertainment, but Santeiro doesn't stop there. In Act Two, many years have passed and the three actresses now inhabit different roles: elderly ladies conducting an all-night vigil at their beloved Beba's coffin. Rosa expresses bitterness about el exilio, and her cousin Beba's final exile to a nursing home (which the other women defensively call "a senior citizens' apartment complex"). Isabel prays loudly to stop the bickering, but the barbs soon accelerate again. Gloria, once a cabaret performer in Havana, sings Beba's favorite tunes to her corpse, and eventually all three join in, to rekindle happier memories.

Instead of being maudlin - an easy mistake, considering the subject matter - both acts are constantly amusing, a tribute to Santeiro's comic gifts. Rosa is wryly called "the Cuban Greta Garbo" when she claims that it's fine being alone in a converted room above her son's garage. Beba's favorite American field trip is to the car wash, but she objects to blue water in the bathroom. "A toilet is not a swimming pool," she huffs.

Creating very different characters in the course of one evening, and giving both roles depth and honesty, is an acting challenge, but these women make it look easy. Xonia Benguria commands center stage as the Queen Mama Beba, and portrays Gloria in Act Two with a fragile dignity. Local talent Marta Velasco (from Univision's most popular television show, Sabado Gigante) is exceptionally effective as the wounded, frustrated Marita, then does a major switch when she paints Rosa with a broad comic brush. Alina Troyano brings the right amount of optimistic naivete to Zoila, and a kind heart to Isabel.

Max Ferra, artistic director and co-founder of New York's INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center (a major developmental theater for Latin American musicals and plays), where The Lady from Havana enjoyed its world premiere, directs this production with two original cast members (Benguria and Troyano) and a masterful touch. The staging is effective, the action never drags, and the laughs are perfectly timed.

The production's only sore spot is Stephen Lambert's set, an alienating mixture of patio furniture and latticework that subtracts from both atmospheres - Marita's home and the funeral parlor.

NBC's New Voices program, designed to help emerging dramatic talent throughout the nation, partly sponsored this effort. Santeiro certainly deserves their support. And for the first time, the Playhouse will be presenting the play both in English and then in Spanish, with the same cast, for the last two weeks of the run. Bilingual audiences might want to go twice to catch the differences, but anyone with a sense of humor, and a mother, should see it at least once.

Written by Luis Santeiro, directed by Max Ferra; with Xonia Benguria, Alina Troyano, and Marta Velasco. At The Encore Room of The Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Highway, Coconut Grove, through January 19 (in English), and from January 21 - February 2 (in Spanish). Performances Tuesday - Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; matinees Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 2:15 p.m. Tickets cost $24 to $27, with discount plans available; call 442-4000 for more information.


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